Last Monday, delegations to the fourth round of the six-party talks with North Korea issued a joint statement at the conclusion of the unprecedented marathon meetings held in Beijing over the span of August and September. A major milestone since the multilateral process began a little over two years ago, but the road to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula remains bumpy ahead.
The latest round of talks on the North Korean nuclear issue registered some notable progress. Pyongyang is committed to abandoning all of its nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs, and pledges to return to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and international safeguards.
The US affirms that it has no nuclear weapons deployed on the Korean Peninsula and stated that it has no intention of invading North Korea.
Washington and Pyongyang also pledge to respect each other's sovereignty and seek to undertake specific steps toward normalization. China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the US state their willingness to provide energy assistance to North Korea and all the six parties are committed to building peace institutions on the peninsula.
Despite these achievements, the contentious issues that had dominated the negotiations remain unresolved. The first issue is whether North Korea has the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, and in its demand for a light water reactor. Then there is the issue of sequence. Neither was clearly stated in the joint statement.
Not surprisingly, Pyongyang again demands that it be provided a multibillion-dollar light water nuclear reactor before it dismantles its nuclear weapons program, something the other parties to the talks only agreed to discuss at "an appropriate time."
Whether this is typical North Korean posturing or not, this latest development points to difficult negotiation ahead. The Bush administration would be hard put in conceding to Pyongyang's demand for both technical and principle reasons. Building a reactor takes years and incurs tremendous cost -- ? no country entertains the idea of footing the bill. The lapse in turn allows North Korea to continue its nuclear weapons program. Perceivably, as Pyongyang expands its nuclear arsenals, it could raise the pricetag at a later date.
But a fundamental issue of principle is whether North Korea should be allowed to have nuclear programs at all, especially given Pyongyang's past record. To some extent, Russia, South Korea and China are sympathetic to Pyongyang's position, especially if North Korea returns to the NPT and agrees to inspections and safeguard arrangements with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
This is an issue that reveals a fundamental conundrum that the current nuclear nonproliferation regime has to wrestle with: how to balance the three objectives set out in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)-nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, and peaceful use of nuclear energy.
The NPT was and remains a political grand bargain. At its conclusion in 1968, the signatory parties agreed that non-nuclear weapons states would forsake the pursuit of nuclear weapons; in exchange, they would be entitled to receiving, acquiring and developing nuclear technologies for peaceful use.
However, member states are entitled to develop their nuclear fuel cycles; but they are also free to withdraw from the treaty by giving a 90-day notice. This in effect provides potential proliferant states with the cover to acquire the necessary ingredients for making nuclear weapons.