Norman Dombey: The West has to show North Korea we can be trusted

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North Korea seems to be in a transition between leaders and impatient for the world’s attention. That is no justification for last week’s shelling – and killing - of civilians, nor for its appalling human rights record. But before we join the ritual howling of disapproval we should note a positive feature from last week’s news - that North Korea has built a new large uranium enrichment plant. Yes, it is good news, although you’d never think it from reading the Western press.

First, some history. President Clinton almost sealed a deal with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) at the very end of his second term. Ten years ago he received Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, a special envoy of President Kim Jong Il, in the White House, and in turn Clinton was invited to Pyongyang. The key part of the deal (“the Agreed Framework”), was that the US, South Korea and Japan would build two light water reactors for electricity production in the DPRK. In return Pyongyang would suspend plutonium production at Yongbyon and give international inspectors access to the plant. The US and DPRK agreed that they would have ‘no hostile intent’ against each other and would exchange Ambassadors. In December 2000, with a new president-elect waiting in the wings, when Clinton had been due to visit, he became occupied with the Middle East and didn’t go.

George W Bush’s response to the Agreed Framework was to label North Korea, together with Iran and Iraq, a member of the ‘axis of evil’. He also closed down the organisation which was supervising the building of the reactors. North Korea, unused to the vagaries of democratic politics, saw this as a provocation and threw out the nuclear inspectors, restarted plutonium production and exploded a nuclear weapon.

In Bush’s second term, he went back to negotiation. Six-party talks involving both Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the US were initiated with the aim of removing all nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula. Things seemed to be going very well: South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun visited Pyongyang; US and international inspectors returned to Yongbyon, and facilities at Yongbyon reactor were mothballed or destroyed. Then elections were held in South Korea and a new President, Lee Myung Bak, was elected. He wanted nothing to do with the North, and aid was cut substantially. So the inspectors were again thrown out and the North exploded another weapon.

Last year North Korea announced that it was building centrifuges to enrich uranium to fuel a light water reactor. Dr Sig Hecker, the former Director of Los Alamos nuclear weapon laboratory, who had visited Yongbyon many times returned recently and was shown the centrifuges and fuel fabrication facilities. Whereas a previous reactor at Yongbyon, a copy of the British Calder Hall reactor at Sellafield, produced both electricity and plutonium for weapons these facilities, Hecker noted, were ultra-modern and the centrifuges ‘appeared to be designed primarily for civilian nuclear power, not to boost North Korea’s military capabilities’. This, surely, would be excellent news, yet it doesn’t fit the narrative of our rush to condemn.

The spent fuel from light water reactors has never been used in weapons. If Sig Hecker is correct – and you agree that nuclear power is to be welcomed - we should be helping the North. Offering advice and funds in return for having personnel on site would enable the West to monitor the situation. We urgently need such confidence-building measures.

The last 20 years should have taught us that threatening North Korea with aircraft carriers or sanctions doesn’t work. Neither the US nor South Korea can attack the North: not because the North has nuclear weapons but because Seoul, with its ten million inhabitants, is within artillery range. And we should not be naive: the North may have secret facilities too, but hostility is counter-productive. Because of what the North has been promised but not had delivered, we are regarded with mistrust, yet a regime as jumpy as theirs needs to be given every reason to trust us. The US should ask China to act as an intermediary and tell the North that it is willing to restart discussions, either via the six-Party forum or in direct bilateral talks. We have no choice but to talk.

Norman Dombey is Emeritus Professor of theoretical physics at the University of Sussex