Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
U.S., N. Korea Reach Agreement On Suspect Site Inspection

 Tom Pfeiffer

U.S. EFFORTS TO persuade NorthKorea to address continuing concerns about its nuclear- and missile-relatedactivities met with limited success in March, with Pyongyang finally agreeing to allow U.S. inspections of an underground facility that U.S. officials suspect might be related to a covert nuclear weapons program. The progress came in the midst of a comprehensive review of the Clinton administration's North Korea policy by former Defense Secretary William Perry, who concluded his second visit to Northeast Asia since being named policy coordinator last November.

The continuing suspicions about the North's nuclear ambitions nearly derailed U.S. funding last year for implementing the 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework, under which Pyongyang agreed to freeze and eventually eliminate its nuclear weapons program. Last fall some lawmakers threatened to halt U.S. funding for heavy fuel oil deliveries to North Korea because of concerns over the suspect site and Pyongyang's continuing missile activities.

The administration's policy has come under increasing attack by congressional critics—particularly after North Korea's August 1998 flight test of its three-stage, medium-range Taepo Dong-1 ballistic missile which overflew Japan—who claim that U.S. policy has failed to halt Pyongyang's proliferation activities. Although a last-minute appropriation funded the administration's $35 million request for the oil, the funds will not be available until the end of March and only if the president can certify the North is not conducting nuclear activities outside the 1994 accord. The New York agreement on U.S. inspections should address some of those concerns.

May Inspection Scheduled

On March 16, the United States and North Korea issued a joint press statement outlining the cooperative steps agreed to after their fourth round of "access" talks, held February 27 to March 15 in New York, regarding the North's underground activities near Kumchang-ni village. U.S. officials are concerned that the huge underground facility, located 40 kilometers northwest of Yongbyon, may be related to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, which remains frozen under the Agreed Framework. Although North Korean officials have said the Kumchang-ni site is related to national security purposes, Pyongyang denies the facility is nuclear related. The talks were led by Ambassador Charles Kartman and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan.

According to the joint statement, North Korea "has decided to provide the United States satisfactory access…by inviting a U.S. delegation for an initial visit in May 1999, and allowing additional visits to remove U.S. concerns about the site's future use." In return, the United States "has decided to take a step to improve political and economic relations between the two countries." That step is the initiation of a bilateral pilot agricultural project, to be run by American non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to improve potato production in North Korea. The NGOs will also manage a food-for-work program in the North, with the food contributed by the UN World Food Program (WFP).

During the earlier rounds of the talks, North Korea had reportedly sought $300 million in compensation for allowing the United States access to the site, as well as additional U.S. commitments of food aid to help alleviate the North's continuing famine. But U.S. officials made clear that the United States would not pay for access to the suspect site, and that the provision of U.S. food aid would be based on humanitarian concerns and not linked to political issues.

However, critics of the administration's North Korea policy continue to focus on the perceived linkage between pledges of food aid to Pyongyang and U.S. efforts to engage the North on the nuclear and missile issues. Some press reports suggest that a "confidential document" attached to the New York agreement commits the U.S. government to provide 500,000 tons of food aid to North Korea this year in exchange for the inspections. (During the New York talks, North Korea reportedly sought 1 million tons of aid in exchange for allowing U.S. access to Kumchang-ni.) In 1998, the United States pledged 500,000 tons of aid in response to WFP appeals, and on March 22 the Department of State announced that the United States will provide an additional 100,000 metric tons of food aid to fill nearly half of the donation shortfall from a WFP appeal in December 1998.

Missile Stalemate

In contrast to the progress on the nuclear issue, the United States and North Korea remain at odds over U.S. efforts to seek negotiated limits on Pyongyang's ballistic missile programs. During the fourth round of talks March 29 and 30 in Pyongyang, U.S. and North Korean negotiators were able only to agree in principle to hold additional talks.

The Clinton administration wants North Korea to constrain its development, testing and export of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles, including space launch vehicles, steps the North has flatly rejected. According to press reports, the North has sought $3 billion in compensation over three years for forgoing commercial sales, which the United States has rejected.

The missile stalemate comes at a critical time in Northeast Asia security developments. In February 2 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet said, "I can hardly overstate my concern about North Korea…. In nearly all respects, the situation there has become more volatile and unpredictable." In sharp contrast to a CIA assessment offered last summer in response to the Rumsfeld Commission report (see ACT, June/July 1998), Tenet now warned that North Korea could soon have the capability to deliver large payloads (such as a nuclear weapon) to the continental United States.

Pyongyang's emerging missile prowess, particularly its unsuccessful attempt to launch its first satellite on the three-stage Taepo Dong-1 last August (which caught U.S. intelligence by surprise), has fuelled the already hot debate in the United States and among its Asian allies on the development and deployment of strategic and theater missile defenses.

The North's missile brinkmanship has also pushed South Korea to renew its effort to terminate its 1990 agreement with the United States limiting its offensive missile capabilities to systems with ranges up to 180 kilometers. The missile issue was raised again in January during the annual meeting of the U.S.-South Korea SecurityConsultative Meeting between Secretary of Defense William Cohen and South Korea Defense Minister Chun Yong Taek. According to a joint communique issued after the meeting, "The two ministers discussed the issue of readjusting [the South's] current voluntary restraint on missiles…."

Perry's Policy Review

In early March, Perry visited China (including Taiwan), South Korea and Japan as part of his review of U.S. North Korea policy. Last October, Congress mandated the appointment of a "policycoordinator" as part of its approval for U.S. funding for theKorean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), the international consortium that is implementing the 1994 nuclearagreement.

In March 12 remarks at the National Press Club following his return from Asia, Perry said U.S. policy must be "harmonious" with South Korean policy, the so-called "sunshine" policy of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. "It would be the height of arrogance and folly for the United States to believe it could have a policy on Korea that was different from the policy, in particular, of the South Korean government," he said.

At the same time, however, Perry said he would recommend the United States adopt "sterner measures" if Pyongyang rejects U.S. political and economic gestures in exchange for curbs on its nuclear and missile activities. Perry's review of U.S. policy and his recommendations are expected by the end of March.