U.S. Says N. Korea Site Nuclear Free; Perry Visits Pyongyang

Howard Diamond

FOLLOWING THE determination by a U.S. inspection team that a North Korean underground construction site did not contain facilities relating to nuclear weapons, presidential envoy William Perry met with senior North Korean officials during his May 25 to 28 visit to discuss the possibility of a major shift in relations between Pyongyang and Washington. The inspection of the site in Kumchang-ni was described by the Clinton administration as essential to preserving the 1994 Agreed Framework and a prerequisite for any hopes of improving relations between the two states.

Perry, President Clinton's special coordinator for North Korea policy and former secretary of defense, described his meetings with senior North Korean political, diplomatic and military figures as "very intensive, extremely substantive, and quite valuable in providing me with insights in [North Korean] thinking on key issues of concern." Perry's delegation, which included State Department Counselor Ambassador Wendy Sherman and five other current and former U.S. officials, was the highest ranking U.S. group to ever visit North Korea.

Speaking to reporters in Seoul on May 29, Perry indicated he had fulfilled three goals during his trip to Pyongyang. According to Perry, he was able to "establish meaningful relationships with a wide range of senior [North Korean] officials," and "reaffirm" Pyongyang's commitment to "the current elements of our relationship," including the 1994 nuclear agreement. Most importantly, Perry said he was able "to explore [North Korean] thinking about the possibility of a major expansion in our relations and cooperation, as part of a process in which U.S. and allied concerns about missile and nuclear programs are addressed." Perry said he had not received "a definitive [North Korean] response to this idea," and suggested "it will take some time for [North Korea] to further reflect on the views I expressed." Perry refused to go into detail on the nature of his proposals to Pyongyang and did not take questions.

Appearing with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on May 17, South Korean Foreign Minister Hong Soon-Young said Perry was carrying to Pyongyang "a comprehensive package proposal…full of attractions and full of incentives." Hong added, "it is a package of incentives and disincentives and a package of carrots and sticks." Albright also announced that the United States would donate 400,000 tons of emergency food aid in response to the World Food Program's April appeal, bringing the annual total of U.S. food aid to North Korea to 600,000 tons. The United States donated 500,000 tons of food to North Korea in 1998.

Korea policy experts have speculated that Perry's trip was meant to test North Korea's willingness to deal over its development and export of ballistic missiles in exchange for a lifting of economic sanctions, normalization of diplomatic relations including the exchange of ambassadors, and potentially even some form of security guarantees—all steps that can be taken by the president with limited congressional involvement. The terms of such a "grand bargain" have been discussed in Washington since the adoption of the Agreed Framework, which anticipates such improvements in U.S.-North Korean relations.

A dramatic shift in U.S. policy will probably not come easily. Perry's appointment as policy coordinator in November 1998 followed North Korea's August 1998 launch of its three-stage Taepo Dong-1 missile over Japan and allegations that the underground construction site in Kumchang-ni was part of an ongoing nuclear weapons program. Angered by Pyongyang's provocations, and convinced the Clinton administration's Korea policy was failing to meet U.S. security concerns, Congress threatened to cut-off financial support for the nuclear accord. The administration salvaged the funding by agreeing to conduct a high-level review of its policy. However, doubts remain in Congress about whether engagement with North Korea can work.

Administration critics insist, notwithstanding its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Agreed Framework, that Pyongyang remains committed to building nuclear weapons and developing and exporting long-range ballistic missiles. While unwilling to accept that Pyongyang can only be dealt with using sticks, Washington has limited its dealings with North Korea to technical-level, issue-by-issue discussions that have been prone to frequent breakdowns and long lapses without progress.

Perry is expected to complete his policy review in June, and has said he will return to the private sector. Ambassador Sherman is likely to be named as the administration's North Korea policy coordinator. A former assistant secretary of sate for legislative afairs, Sherman has a close relationship with Secretary Albright, which could prove critical in keeping high-level attention on the issue.

Kumchang-ni and KEDO

After months of negotiations, North Korea agreed in March to allow the inspection of the underground site in Kumchang-ni after dropping its initial demand for $300 million in compensation. Instead, the United States will provide North Korea with a pilot agricultural program to help grow potatoes and is continuing to provide large quantities of food aid, which it insists is given on a strictly humanitarian basis.

The Kumchang-ni site was examined by a team of 14 U.S. scientists and proliferation specialists, May 18 to 24. State Department spokesman James Rubin said May 28 that the U.S. team found "an extensive, empty tunnel complex," and that "a full technical analysis is underway to determine…what the site might have been intended for." Rubin added that "based on what we know thus far, there is no basis to conclude that North Korea is in violation of the Agreed Framework." The conclusions of the technical review will probably be released at the end of June.

Questions, however, about whether North Korea moved key pieces of equipment prior to the visit are likely to linger, with skeptics arguing that U.S. satellites showed increased vehicle and personnel activity before the inspection. According to Rubin, the site "was at a stage of construction prior to the time when any relevant equipment, other than construction equipment, would be expected to be present." Washington's access arrangement with Pyongyang provides for an additional inspection next year and annually beyond that if requested by the United States.

The Kumchang-ni inspection will help the administration to fulfill the security-related conditions set by Congress for U.S. financial support of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), the international consortium created to implement the 1994 nuclear accord. For FY 1999, Congress provided $35 million to support KEDO's annual obligation to provide North Korea with 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil while two light-water reactors (LWRs) are being built. For the past two years, KEDO has failed to deliver the required quantity of fuel oil by the end of its scheduled delivery year, which ends in late October. Since completing 1998's deliveries early this year, KEDO will have delivered 140,000 tons of this year's required heavy fuel oil by mid-June.

KEDO continues site development work in Sinpo, North Korea where the two 1,000-megawatt (electric) LWRs called for in the nuclear accord will be built, and appears to be closing in on completing the financial arrangements for the $4.6 billion project. On May 3, KEDO signed an agreement with the government of Japan, whereby Tokyo will pay the interest on a $1 billion loan to KEDO from the Japanese Import-Export Bank that will fulfill Japan's commitment to fund a "significant" portion of the LWR project. KEDO continues negotiations with the Japanese Import-Export Bank on the terms of the loan, and is in similar talks with the government of South Korea and the South Korean Import-Export Bank.

Seoul has committed itself to a "central" role in the LWR project and has pledged to pay 70 percent of the project's actual cost. The United States, while funding much of the oil program, has committed itself only to taking responsibility for finding any additional funds that might be required to complete the LWR project. Once the financial arrangements are settled, KEDO hopes to sign the prime, or "turn-key," contract for the LWR project with its prime contractor, the Korea Electric Power Company (KEPCO). Completion of the prime contract would allow KEDO to order long-lead time items for the LWRs and to accelerate the pace of construction at the site in North Korea.