ON July 8, Kim Il Sung, the only leader North Korea had ever known, died. On that same day, the country began a third round of high-level negotiations with the United States concerning Pyongyang's nuclear program. Initial positions had been exchanged, but the talks were canceled indefinitely after the death of the ``Great Leader.'' It is presumed that, at least in the short-term, power has been passed to his son, Kim Jong Il.
The long-term stability of this shift, however, is uncertain. Rumors of a family power struggle circulate while speculation about Kim Jong Il's health and mental stability continues.
The third round of talks in Geneva were rescheduled for Aug. 5. After the negotiations ended on Aug. 12, the US and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) issued a joint declaration outlining elements of a potential final resolution to the nuclear crisis.
The declaration highlighted four key components of a possible solution: international help to convert North Korea's graphite-based nuclear-energy system to light-water reactors (LWRs); movement toward full normalization of relations with the US; assurances from Washington not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons; and Pyongyang's commitment to rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Many believe that this not only lays the groundwork for solving the nuclear crisis, but also indicates a ``kinder, gentler'' North Korea under Kim Jong Il.
Unfortunately, this joint declaration indicates neither that North Korea is more committed to negotiations nor an imminent end to the nuclear crisis. Rather, it is a small, positive step that codifies elements of a potential solution rumored to have resulted from the second round of high-level talks in July 1993.
Three points caution against undue optimism at this time:
First, this month's talks gave the world a first glimpse of the North Korean leadership after Kim Il Sung. Although some have speculated that this agreement foreshadows a Pyongyang more committed to a negotiated solution, it could simply indicate a continuation of the elder Kim regime's policies. Kim Jong Il reportedly was in charge of North Korea's nuclear policy long before his father's death.
Earlier, an agreement had been reached on International Atomic Agency (IAEA) inspections before some 8,000 fuel rods were removed from one of North Korea's reactors. When those rods were removed, the DPRK destroyed information that could have helped the IAEA determine how much plutonium the country had previously produced and, thus, how many nuclear warheads they may have. With that evidence gone, North Korea may be more willing to freeze an ambiguous program in exchange for diplomatic and economic benefits, regardless of who is in charge in Pyongyang. Its ability to maintain its nuclear ambiguity may have facilitated this agreement, rather than the change in leadership.
Second, the safety of the fuel rods themselves is still unresolved. The rods are sitting in a pond filled with dirty water. Corrosion of the metal casings could lead to radiation leaks or even fires. Because of this risk, Pyongyang has stated that it needs either to reprocess the fuel rods, which then could be used to produce approximately five more nuclear warheads, or to extend the life of the fuel rods in storage. This can be done either by treating the water in which the rods are currently stored or by moving the rods to dry storage, essentially burying them in concrete.
This issue was unresolved at the third round of high-level talks. Until an agreement is reached, those fuel rods give North Korea tremendous leverage. At any point, Pyongyang could threaten to throw out IAEA inspectors and reprocess weapons-grade plutonium from the fuel rods.
Third, even the details of what has been agreed to remain unresolved. By US law, Washington cannot directly fund the reactor conversion. The administration has, however, committed to generating international support and funding - the exact source of which is uncertain at this time. The precise nature and wording of US security assurances is unclear; so are the specific conditions under which North Korea will rejoin the NPT and abandon its ``suspended'' status. On Aug. 17, South Korean President Kim Young Sam said that Seoul would not support LWR assistance unless the DPRK agreed to special inspections. North Korea responded that it would never allow special inspections - inspection of undeclared facilities, in this case two suspected nuclear-waste disposal sites. The whole agreement could easily unravel over this issue, which started the crisis in the first place.
The fourth round of high-level talks is scheduled to begin Sept. 23. Pyongyang has stated that if assurances about the provision of technology for two new LWRs are not received before then, it may restart its experimental nuclear power plant. If that happens, the US has made it clear that Washington would cancel talks with North Korea and would probably reexplore sanctions. This timing would coincide with enhanced concern about the safety of the stored fuel rods. In this environment, Pyongyang might then expel IAEA inspectors and claim that it must remove the fuel rods for safety reasons. No means to monitor this process would exist, and the West could lose track of the plutonium.
The next month is critical; it will reveal even more about the nascent North Korean leadership and its nuclear card. In the meantime, Washington cannot allow attention to the nuclear issue to wane. While the joint declaration demonstrates modest progress, it does not necessarily indicate a new government more willing to negotiate. Much still remains to be done; firm US leadership is essential to a solution, both in the short term and the long term. But this crisis is far from resolved. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.