CHINA has just told President Clinton that it supports the United States nuclear agreement with North Korea; the North Koreans have begun to implement the accord by freezing their nuclear programs.
Only an incurable optimist would bet on straightforward implementation. Nevertheless, the deal is good for both sides. Special Ambassador Robert Gallucci has been criticized for failing to impose unilateral conditions on the Koreans, but if the agreement hadn't offered something for North Korea, there would have been no deal.
By last summer the North Koreans were known to have enough plutonium to make at least one nuclear bomb, but were thought to be short of a more useful two-bomb stockpile. However, glowing in a cooling pond were more than 8,000 ``pins'' of spent fuel containing over 60 pounds of plutonium, removed without international supervision from the Koreans' only power reactor, and containing enough plutonium to make at least five more bombs.
The principal American goal of the negotiations was to secure the spent fuel to ensure that the plutonium never reached the Korean reprocessing plant. The second goal was to prevent fresh fuel from being loaded into the reactor. Gallucci's third objective was to seal the reprocessing plant.
North Korea's goals differed. It is desperately short of fuel oil and lacks electrical generating capacity for economic development. Further, attempts to disentangle the skein of evasions and deceptions that permitted that government to squirrel away enough plutonium to join the nuclear club were considered infringements on the nation's sovereignty. North Korea's overriding aim has been to evade inspections of those sites, inspections which would reveal how much plutonium had been made, and when.
Before the agreement was even made public, it was attacked along three separate lines.
First, any accord which did not simply take North Korea to the woodshed rewarded bad behavior and weakened the nonproliferation regime.
Second, the West gave up too much, got too little, and gets its full payoff only five years from now when North Korea gets its first light-water reactor, the fuel for which must come from the West.
Third, it was said that North Korea wouldn't keep its word.
Not so fast. The framework agreement contains interlocking deadlines for Western and North Korean acts to make Pyongyang keep its promises. The United States and its partners will supply enough fuel oil to replace the small amount of nuclear generating capacity relinquished by the Pyongyang government - less electricity than needed to run a small city. In return, North Korea has already halted construction of its two new nuclear reactors, both of which could produce excellent weapons-grade plutonium. Now the North Koreans will seal their reprocessing plant and fuel factory and forgo refueling their existing reactor, all under the eyes of international inspectors.
The North Koreans took these steps in exchange for just a letter of commitment from President Clinton.
Pyongyang also committed to United Nations inspection of its nuclear disposal sites, once construction of the first power reactor is well along. North Korea's refusal of those inspections provoked the crisis to begin with.
North Korea could, of course, renege. But if it breaks its word now, oil deliveries will stop. If it fails to allow inspections of its waste sites, construction of the reactors will stop, leaving only concrete shells with no nuclear equipment. And if it does not relinquish the spent fuel and its contained plutonium when the first reactor is finished, North Korea will stare at a desperately needed facility lacking only the enriched uranium to make it work, a material for which the North has no substitute. The West now has unprecedented leverage over North Korea.
Finally, the agreement opens North Korea's sealed door, if only a crack. There is much to be gained from allowing Western air into totalitarian societies: It causes many of them to crumble.
In the end, North Korea agreed to virtually every American demand, demanding only a certain saving of face. It will ultimately denuclearize, strengthening the nonproliferation regime; and it may conceivably join the rest of the world. Ambassador Gallucci's hard work achieved better than the only alternative: a preemptive attack on the North and a second Korean War.