Should the US or China Stop North Korea?

I was pleased to see a New York Times op-ed by Joel Wit on North Korea.  Sometimes he is the PBS News Hour expert, but this time, PBS turned to some other other experts.  I worked with Joel Wit off and on for several years.  In my previous blog about the North Korean nuclear test, I complained that the US government would not fund its obligations under the Korean Peninsula Development Organization (KEDO).  As I result, as the embassy science officer in Rome I had to ask the Italy and the EU if they would provide the funds that the US Congress would not.  If the US did not fund its obligations, it gave North Korea a perfect excuse to withdraw from KEDO and resume its nuclear weapons program.  Joel was back in Washington, and was at the other end of these instruction cables to ask the Europeans for money.

It was not Joel’s fault that the US Congress would not appropriate the money for KEDO.  He was left scrambling to find the money.  I think I heard him say at least once that the US had never defaulted on its obligations.  Apparently he and his associates found the money after I retired, since KEDO continued on for years, but even if they did, it was an indication of bad faith on America’s part.

In his op-ed, Joel says that the US cannot count on China to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program; only the US can.  To do this the US will have to escalate sanctions and keep the door open for negotiations.  He thinks that there may be something that North Korea wants enough to resume talks.

I am not optimistic.  Looking at the past history, North Korea swings back and forth so much it’s hard to tell if they are serious about any negotiations.  They have actually entered into agreements that actually restricted their activities like any normal country that was giving up a military nuclear program.  But then they suddenly change their mind and withdraw.  Nevertheless, it’s better to try to rein in the program than just let them do anything they want.

After KEDO, six-party talks produced various attempts at agreements to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but they all failed in the end.  Off and on the North Koreans agree to certain restrictions on their programs, which they ultimately renounced.

The Arms Control Association website provides a timeline.  North Korea first undertook to restrain its nuclear program in 1985, when it signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but it did not implement the safeguards agreement required by the NPT.  In 1992 it finally signed a safeguards agreement under the NPT with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  Agreement on KEDO is reached in 1994, under which the US, South Korea and Japan promise two commercial light water reactors in return for North Korea’s dismantling of its plutonium production reactors.  In 1996 talks the US suggested that North Korea joining the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which I played a role in creating.  (North Korea did not join.)  In 1998 Japan suspended its participation in KEDO.  In 1999 KEDO signed a contract to build the two power reactors.  In August 2002 KEDO poured the first concrete for the power reactor construction.  During an American visit in October 2002, North Korea admitted that had a clandestine nuclear enrichment program in violation of its agreements.  In November 2002 KEDO announced that it was suspending its delivery of heavy fuel oil under the agreement.  The US provided funding in 2003 to wind down the organization, which announced that it was suspending reactor construction.  In 2006 the KEDO board announced the formal termination of its power reactor construction project.

KEDO was succeeded by another agreement based on a 2005 joint statement at six-party talks including North Korea, the US, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.  In November 2007 a US team travelled to North Korea to begin disablement of Yongbyon nuclear facilities under an October agreement reached in the six-arty talks.  During 2008 Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill meets with North Koreas on compliance with the agreement.  By December 2008 the US has delivered 550,000 tons of heavy fuel oil under the agreement.  In April 2009, North Korea says it will no longer be bound by the six-party talks agreement and ejects IAEA and US monitors.  In May North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test.

In December 2011 Kim Jong Il dies and is replaced by Kim Jong Un.  In December 2012, North Korea successfully launches a satellite.  In February 2013, North Korea conducts another underground nuclear test.  In January 2016, North Korea announces a fourth nuclear test.  It conducted its fifth nuclear test on September 9, 2016.

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