Atoms for Peace? — Maybe the N. Koreans Aren’t so Crazy

Those crazy North Koreans. They’ve promised in principle to give up their nuclear weapons, but they insist on generating nuclear power for peaceful purposes. With Pyongyang and Washington at loggerheads over this point, the Six-Party Talks to resolve the nuclear crisis in Northeast Asia have taken a recess after two weeks of promising discussions.

U.S. and North Korean negotiators have met at least 10 times for face-to-face palaver. The North Koreans even took the Americans out to dinner. The four other parties — Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan — all scrambled to put together an agreement. But in the end, the U.S. side declared that it didn’t trust North Korea to restrict its nuclear ambitions to the civilian sector. What part of “No nukes” do the North Koreans not understand?

But maybe the North Koreans aren’t so crazy, after all.

Pyongyang desperately needs energy. North Korean factories are barely functioning. The agricultural sector depends on petroleum for tractors, fertilizer production and food distribution. The economic crisis of the 1990s — peaking with the devastating famine of mid-decade — can be traced back to the end of cheap Soviet oil.

Pyongyang doesn’t want to repeat the scenario of the ’90s, when its entire economy depended on someone else’s energy supply. Now reliant on China for nearly all its energy needs, North Korea is not thrilled that the whims of Beijing — or pressure from Washington — could restrict the flow. South Korea has offered to provide 2,000 megawatts of electricity if North Korea gives up its nuclear program, but such a transfer of control from Beijing to Seoul is no more satisfactory for Pyongyang.

North Korea has been attracted to a civilian nuclear program for the same reasons as Japan and South Korea. Japan relies on nuclear power for a third of its energy needs, and South Korea is even more dependent on atomic energy, over 40 percent, and plans to raise that level to 60 percent in the next 30 years. Nuclear power provides a hedge against the vicissitudes of Mideast politics, not to mention the inevitable disappearance of scarce resources. Sure, there’s Chernobyl, and the problems of waste disposal and corruption in the nuclear industry. But since neither Japan nor South Korea is blessed with domestic sources of oil and natural gas, they’ve decided to put up with the risks.

Even the United States, with other domestic sources of energy, has invested billions in the nuclear industry, making it the world’s largest producer of nuclear energy.

Not surprisingly, North Korea has long coveted what Japan, South Korea and the United States all have. But officials of the Bush administration never liked the Agreed Framework, which in the ’90s froze North Korea’s plutonium-processing capabilities, in exchange for two light-water reactors. The reactors were never built, so the North Koreans never had a chance to profit legitimately (or illegitimately) from them.

Nevertheless, U.S. negotiators today are determined not to repeat the Clinton administration’s “atoms for peace” deal. They want to deny North Korea such a civil-nuclear capability even though international agreements such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty permit and even encourage such programs.

North Korea has expressed a willingness to rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and permit inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. As Russia and other countries have pointed out, this should qualify North Korea for a civil-nuclear program. But the United States is out to change the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and create a class of countries (North Korea, Iran) that forswear all chain reactions. When negotiators return to the table in Beijing, at the end of the month, the U.S. side will keep trying to push North Korea into this new non-nuclear club. Such pressure politics may work; North Korea is, after all, in an economically vulnerable state.

But good agreements rarely result from mere pressure. The negotiators must acknowledge North Korea’s underlying need for a source of energy with no strings attached. For a country that prides itself on self-reliance, energy independence is vital. And nuclear power, despite its manifold environmental risks, could be part of that independence.

Just ask Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

John Feffer is the author of North Korea, South Korea (Seven Stories, 2003) and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (online at www.fpif.org).