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Fri. December 08, 2023
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IA-Forum Interview: Peter Beck

Peter Beck is the Seoul-based director of the Northeast Asia Project of the International Crisis Group

International Affairs Forum: How does the latest deal reached at the 6-party talks compare to the 1994 Agreed Framework?

Mr. Peter Beck: We have to be careful when we're comparing them because the 1994 Framework was an agreement, and this is really just a joint statement. We'll have to wait and see if it leads to a more formal document or not.

This is different in a number of respects, the biggest one being that the North is not receiving a significant reward for its bad behavior, until it engages in good behavior, whereas in '94 all they had to do was to freeze the facility and for the next eight years they collected four million tons of heavy fuel oil. This time, in exchange for a freeze, all they did was get 50,000 tons. So by that measure, this is quite a bargain and is really designed so that, as the Bush administration likes to say, "We don't buy the same horse twice."

I think it's unfair to call this 1994-lite. I think pessimists are using that term because clearly there's a lot of work that remains to be done. But on the face of it, I don't think there's too much that has been given away, though it's going to require some very difficult negotiations in the coming months.

IA-Forum: Are there any risks or problems with the statement agreed on this week?

Mr. Beck: Many problems, because the problem itself is very much more serious and complex than it was in 1994, and the Bush administration is rightly demanding that a higher standard be reached this time.

A freeze alone isn't good enough, especially as they've generated enough plutonium to build up to 10 bombs. Going through it chronologically, the first job will be freeing up funds in Macau – we found for example that even senior members of the NSC aren't on the same page. There's also the question of how much of that money is going to be freed up – we assume it is going to be about half of the $24 million, but we don't know exactly.

But something I don't think the media has paid enough attention to is, if you look at the joint statement, the second provision that within 60 days the North is expected to 'discuss' its full range of nuclear facilities and the materials that they have. I read that as, if not a declaration, that I'm expecting in the next two months a document with what they have. That will mean coming clean on the uranium program. There is still some debate on the word 'discuss' and whether that leaves some wriggle room. But the media has either ignored this or is all over the map on when this will happen.

The 50,000 [tons of heavy fuel] is nothing – it barely meets two weeks of the country's energy needs. So they will clearly be expecting a lot more. But creating the momentum for all this to happen is clearly going to be a challenge.

IA-Forum: How difficult will it be to keep all parties to the talks working together?

Mr. Beck: It's going to be extremely difficult, because at the one extreme you have the South Koreans who were just waiting for the ink to dry before they could have their own initiative. We've seen a rapid succession of meetings to firm up the details of the next ministerial meetings. And the South is ready to provide much more extensive humanitarian assistance that is not linked to all this. So for Seoul, this is a green light to proceed on all projects with North Korea without linking any of this to maintaining progress on the nuclear breakthrough.

On the other extreme, we have the Japanese, who are becoming the biggest obstacle to making further progress. As these talks progress, and progress is made, the Japanese are becoming more and more vocal in their opposition to, for example, contributing to the energy assistance or even not wanting the United States to lift North Korea from the list of countries that are considered state sponsors of terrorism. So Japan is the most hard line country. The Russians are spectators. The Chinese are very active mediators this time. All the parties have different interests and capabilities of supporting this breakthrough.

IA-Forum: John Bolton has been extremely critical of the statement, including suggesting it will embolden countries like Iran with their nuclear program. Do you agree with this assessment?

Mr. Beck: I think there's a different dynamic in place and so I don't think this will embolden Iran necessarily. I think the administration made a strategic decision last fall to challenge Iran, which is so intertwined with the Iraq issue, and to be softer on North Korea, and to finally give Secretary Chris Hill the flexibility he needed to reach out to his North Korean counterparts to finally move this process forward.

The frustrating thing is that it didn't begin five years ago, or six years ago. But at least it is finally happening. And like with Libya, it shows that the administration doesn't always bomb first and ask questions later. But the choices with North Korea were anyway much less appealing than they were with Iran. A military strike was never an option for North Korea. But we know that the Israelis and some Neocons think a strike against Iran is doable.

In many ways, Iran is where North Korea was in 1994 in that you have one known facility that could potentially be taken out, whatever that risk. But with North Korea after 1994, and particularly after 2002, we don't know where the plutonium is, we don't know where the uranium is – we don't have targets to hit. So unless they were going to sit on heir hands and shout for the next two years and pass ineffectual sanctions, they [the administration] really had no choice but to negotiate. Hopefully it will be a signal to the Bush leadership and the Iranians that there is another way, and Iran is certainly more pluralistic than North Korea has ever been.

IA-Forum: So you believe a deal could have been reached before now?

Mr. Beck: Absolutely. I think that going back to 2001, when the time was reasonable to do a policy review as they did in 2001, they should have been much more aggressive in reaching out to the North. But they let another year pass, and just when they were finally ready to start talking, we got the intel that the North did have a uranium program. I think the visit in 2002 to Pyongyang by former Assistant Secretary [James] Kelly was mishandled. He should have kept talking, rather than storm out of the country and lead us on to this. I also think the axis of evil speech was extremely unhelpful and not even a useful concept.

So basically from 2001, you can trace a series of missteps taken by the Bush administration not negotiating, engaging in repeated name calling, confronting rather than talking – really just helping to ensure the current standoff.

IA-Forum: How optimistic are you that this statement can ultimately lead to a successful resolution of the problem?

Mr. Beck: It's certainly a small step in the right direction, and it's really the only hope we have of resolving this standoff peacefully. But the bottom line is we really don't know what North Korea's ultimate intentions are - whether this is a tactical move to buy time, or whether it's a strategic decision to try and embrace the world instead of having it, and especially the United States, as an enemy.

I think we need to be a bit skeptical about the North's intentions, given its past record. I would be very surprise if Kim Jong Il is ready to shift and open up his country. He had the opportunity under the agreed framework in the 1990s to normalize relations, and it was actually Kim Jong Il who dropped the ball on that. There was an open invitation to the North to sit in on World Bank and IMF meetings in the 1990s, but they never took the Bank or the Fund up on that offer. And what would it have hurt to sit in on a meeting? There was an effort by both institutions to engage the North.

Maybe they are ready now. But they have the same leader, so you can't help but be sceptical. The only case we have of a nuclear power giving up its program at such an advanced stage is South Africa, and we now know that it was on the eve of a regime change and that it was certainly tied to that. But we don't see any signs of imminent regime change in North Korea whatsoever.

So it's hard to be overly optimistic. But at the same time I think we need to wait at least 60 days to get a preliminary indicator of whether the North is serious or not.

IA-Forum: Thank you.

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