Six Party Progress

Various news agencies are reporting that the on-going six party talks in Beijing were able to resolve the thorny issue of the $25 million of North Korean assets frozen in a Macau bank at the behest of the United States. Until yesterday, this hiccup threatened to derail the talks. But after receiving assurances that the funds will be used for humanitarian purposes, the United States relented. For now, the negotiations are proceeding slowly, but steadily.

However, one of the next issues to be tackled in the six party framework will likely be the most difficult of them all. According to the New York Times, negotiators are trying to set up a working group to investigate claims that North Korea has(or had)a secret uranium enrichment program separate from the well-known plutonium facility in Yongbyon.

First, some history: In 2002, the United States alleged that North Korea was pursuing a secret uranium enrichment program in violation of 1994’s Agreed Framework. Tensions between the two countries reached a boiling point and the Agreed Framework, which put North Korea’s plutonium reserves under IAEA supervision, was effectively declared dead. The North then resumed plutonium production in Yongbyon, and in the summer of 2006 detonated a plutonium-based nuclear bomb.

Because allegations of a separate, secret uranium enrichment program led to the abandonment of the Agreed Framework (which, in turn, provided conditions favorable the development of a North Korea plutonium program) investigating the existence of these alleged programs is particularly important to the United States. But now, there are new questions over the verity of the allegations in the first place. Last month, an intelligence official testified in the Senate that the intelligence community was less than certain about North Koran uranium enrichment back in 2002; in intelligence jargon, the official said the intelligence community was only “mid-confident” about the existence of a uranium enrichment program.

So now that the Six Party talks might result in nuclear inspectors returning to North Korea, the hard line critics of diplomacy with North Korea are beginning to squirm. If it turns out that the North never had a uranium enrichment program active in 2002, these critics will have much egg to clean from their faces. One prominent critic, AEI Senior Fellow John Bolton, has urged the administration to reject the deal out of hand. On CNN last week, he actively rooted for North Korean non-compliance, saying, “I’m hoping that, in the case of North Korea, they will come through, as they always do, and violate this agreement…And that will give the president a chance to repudiate the agreement.”

As the Six Party talks progress over the next few weeks, the chorus of critics of engagement may grow louder. But it may be useful to keep in mind that a number of critics hope for failure precisely because success may prove embarassing to both them personally, and to the hard-line approach they represent.