Back in 1998, then-former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld led a commission that examined the threat potential of various ‘rogue’ states including North Korea.The Rumsfeld Commission Report noted that North Korea was continuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
In addition, the commission predicted that North Korea could develop a missile delivery system capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the continental United States by 2005, contradicting an earlier Clinton administration report that said it would take until 2015 for North Korea to reach that threat level.
While critics derided the report as a sensationalized report advocating a National Missile Defense system, in retrospect, the Rumsfeld report’s prediction on North Korea’s future threat was accurate.
Current military experts agree that North Korea has the ability to deliver an intercontinental ballistic missile to the continental United States and that North Korea has generated enough weapons-grade uranium for several nuclear weapons.
Despite the Rumsfeld Report, it wasn’t until October 2002 in a meeting with U.S. State Department Envoy James Kelly that the North Korean government admitted to having an active nuclear weapons program in defiance of the 1994 Agreed Framework, in which North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Despite millions of dollars in U.S. aid for oil, energy and millions of tons of food aid to help alleviate a massive famine, North Korea did not fulfill its obligation to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Critics of the United States will note that the two light water reactors that the United States and South Korea promised North Korea were years behind schedule when they were halted, but North Korea didn’t even wait until 2003 when South Korean-produced LWRs were supposed to be completed before abrogating the agreement.
In fact, North Korea may have never complied with the agreement because North Korean defectors who worked on North Korea’s nuclear program claim the nuclear program never actually ended!
Therefore, while the United States, South Korea and Japan spent over a billion dollars on building two LWRs, North Korea was likely cheating all along.
After it was clear that North Korea was in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework, the work on the LWRs halted and the South Korean-designed reactors continue to sit incompleted.
Starting in August 2003, six party talks with North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States on the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons began.
After fruitless negotiations, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry argued that Bush should focus on bilateral negotiations, ironically contradicting his multilateral perspective for dealing with Iraq.
Despite the unsuccessful months of negotiation, it appears that the United States and its allies for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula may have come to at least a tentative agreement.
In the agreement, the United States decided not to attack North Korea and, ‘at an appropriate time,’ provide North Korea with LWRs.
In exchange, North Korea agreed to give up all of its nuclear weapons, account for all hidden weapons grade plutonium and allow the return of the IAEA inspections of North Korean facilities.
While it is significantly more difficult to proliferate weaponsgrade plutonium from LWRs, one can use them for weapons-development purposes.
North Korea should ideally provide to the world community and the other five members of the six member talks that North Korea is willing to abide by the disassembly of its nuclear weapons program first, before construction of the incomplete South Korean reactors restarts.
It would be wrong to give North Korea the benefit of the doubt after the same government essentially ignored their obligations in the agreement, while the United States government, with the exception for the LWRs being behind schedule, was upholding the agreement all along.
While we should not be so distrustful to give up on the North Korean government, we must also take its claims of disarmament with a healthy dose of skepticism.
As former President Ronald Reagan noted in 1987 when talking about nuclear arms reductions with the former Soviet Union, we must ‘trust, but verify.’
In our current disarmament talks with North Korea, we need to trust that it is willing to end its program, but we must not take it blindly at its word.
Since North Korea is already backpedaling on waiting for LWRs it would be wise to be wary of conceding LWRs to North Korea until a more formal agreement has been reached and the IAEA and other international inspectors have verified North Korea’s compliance with disarmament.