Kim Jong-il’s Last Card

By Jason T. Shaplen, a policy adviser at the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization from 1995 to 1999 and James Laney, the ambassador to South Korea from 1993 to 1997 (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 08/10/07):

One year ago tomorrow, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, a small explosion that established it as the newest member of the world’s nuclear club. Strangely, since then, the prospects for peace and stability in northeastern Asia have never been better. North Korea’s agreement, last week, to disable all its nuclear facilities by year’s end is the biggest step so far in the right direction.

The nuclear test seemed to give President Bush focus. He took control of his administration’s policy toward the North, ending a six-year feud between hard-line conservatives who favor the collapse of Kim Jong-il’s regime and others who favor negotiation. Eager for a foreign policy success before leaving office, Mr. Bush granted substantial negotiating power to Christopher R. Hill, the State Department’s point person on North Korea, and instructed him to reach a deal.

By January, Mr. Hill had met in Berlin with his North Korean counterpart and worked out the broad outline of an accord under which the North would end its nuclear program in exchange for economic, energy and humanitarian aid and better relations with Washington. By February, talks in Beijing that included the United States, China, North and South Korea, Japan and Russia formalized the agreement. The North would shut down its nuclear program within 60 days and then, on a timeline to be determined, disable it.

Almost immediately, the deal ran into trouble over the agreed-upon transfer of $25 million that had been frozen in North Korean bank accounts in Macao. North Korea wanted the funds transferred through a process that would in effect readmit it to the global banking system. The United States did not. The issue was creatively resolved in June through a web of international transfers, and the next month North Korea shut down its nuclear facilities, with the International Atomic Energy Agency watching.

The speed of progress over the past year has surprised almost all North Korea watchers. Whether by necessity or desire, the North seems more genuine about wanting to improve its relations with the global community today than at any time since fighting in the Korean War ended in 1953. In addition to shutting down its nuclear program, North Korea agreed to last week’s summit meeting between Kim Jong-il and South Korea’s president, Roh Moo-hyun, during which they discussed further economic cooperation and the prospects of a peace treaty.

Still, the nuclear accord is ambiguous on one issue that threatens to derail it: the question of what will happen to North Korea’s existing stockpile of fissile material. The country has reprocessed approximately 50 kilos of weapons-grade plutonium — enough for as many as 10 nuclear bombs — and this stockpile will soon be Mr. Kim’s last remaining card. Were he to give it up he would find himself seriously weakened and, quite possibly, at the mercy of those who seek to bring down his regime. Recently, however, South Korea’s foreign minister, Song Min-soon, has argued that the accord requires North Korea to ship the fissile material out of the country.

To break the impasse, we propose that China, North Korea’s closest remaining ally, assume physical custody in North Korea of the fissile material. This would ensure that the North does not use it to make additional bombs, send it to another country for safekeeping or sell some of it to a terrorist organization for much-needed cash.

While the International Atomic Energy Agency could serve as this watchdog, the North is unlikely to trust an agency that it believes to be controlled by the United States. Also, the North has already demonstrated that it has no qualms about breaking agreements with the agency; in 2002, Mr. Kim expelled its inspectors just before restarting his nuclear program.

China, on the other hand, offers some significant advantages. Kim Jong-il may tussle with Beijing’s leaders from time to time, but he knows they do not seek the collapse of his regime. And if the North fails to abide by its commitments, China could use its huge fuel and food subsidies to bring added pressure to bear, which is something the International Atomic Energy Agency could not do. At some point down the road — after the North has become better integrated into the world community — the fissile material could be shipped out of North Korea.

To be sure, allowing weapons-grade plutonium to remain in the country for any period of time is less than ideal. But no agreement that is practical will be ideal for all parties. Compromise is essential to the accord’s success.

The goal of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula is closer today than it was a year ago. But there are still hurdles to clear. To ensure continued progress in ending the North’s nuclear threat, it is essential to acknowledge the elephant in the room and think creatively about how to deal with the fissile material.