A Joint Plan of Action for North Korea?

"Prospects for a North Korean Nuclear Deal"

On November 24, 2013, Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and German) reached agreement on the Joint Plan of Action, an interim nuclear deal. Could the Joint Plan of Action, which went into effect on January 20, 2014, serve as a model for a nuclear agreement in the Six Party Talks? In principle, many of its elements could be duplicated in a nuclear deal with North Korea. Essentially, it is a six-month truce. Iran agrees to freeze its nuclear program at its current level for six months, while the P5+1 freeze sanctions at their current levels for the same period. In addition to the freeze, both sides agreed to modest measures to roll back some of Iran’s existing nuclear capabilities in exchange for suspending some of the existing sanctions. The overall objective is to stabilize the situation, reduce tensions, and hopefully create conditions for negotiation of a “comprehensive solution” that would resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for full removal of nuclear-related sanctions.

Under the Joint Plan of Action, Iran will not install or operate additional centrifuges beyond those already enriching, not manufacture additional centrifuge machines (except to replace existing machines that fail), not accumulate additional low enriched uranium (less than 5 percent enrichment) beyond its current stockpile, and suspend most construction of the 40 MW Arak heavy water research reactor. As an additional measure beyond the freeze, Iran will suspend production of 20 percent enriched uranium and eliminate its existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride by diluting half of it to less than 5 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride and by converting the rest to an oxide form that cannot be enriched to higher levels unless it is converted back to hexafluoride. All of these nuclear constraints will be verified by enhanced monitoring by inspectors from the IAEA, who will enjoy daily access to Iran’s enrichment facilities and monthly access to the Arak research reactor facility, as well as new access to key facilities for the manufacture and assembly of centrifuge machines.

In exchange for these nuclear steps, the P5+1 have agreed not to impose additional nuclear-related sanctions against Iran. Most important, the United States will not take additional actions to reduce Iranian oil exports below its current average of about 1 million barrels per day, which Iran sells to six remaining oil customers (China, India, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey). In addition, the P5+1 have agreed to suspend several trade sanctions, such as restrictions on Iran’s export of petrochemicals, trade in gold and precious metals, and imports of parts and services for Iran’s automotive and civilian airplane sector. Finally, as Iran draws down its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, it will obtain US$4.3 billion (in monthly installments) of the roughly US$100 billion in Iranian funds that are held in foreign bank accounts and restricted under US and EU financial sanctions.

Beyond the detailed quid pro quo of nuclear constraints for sanctions relief, the Joint Plan of Action also lists the main principles or issues that the parties will address as they seek to negotiate a “comprehensive solution” within one year. In such an agreement, Iran would accept limits on its civilian nuclear program for a “specified long-term duration to be agreed upon.” These restrictions would include “agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities, capacity, where it is carried out, and stocks of enriched uranium,” measures to resolve concerns about the Arak reactor, and “no reprocessing or construction of a facility capable of reprocessing.” Iran would also accept agreed transparency measures and enhanced monitoring, and it would ratify and implement the IAEA Additional Protocol to strengthen monitoring of its nuclear activities.

In return for Iran accepting such nuclear limits, the P5+1 would “comprehensively lift UN Security Council, multilateral and national nuclear-related sanctions, including steps on access in areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy, on a schedule to be agreed upon.” In addition, the P5+1 would be prepared to “include international civil nuclear cooperation, including among others, on acquiring modern light water power and research reactors and associated equipment, and the supply of modern nuclear fuel as well as agreed R&D practices.” Finally, “following successful implementation of the final step of the comprehensive solution for its full duration, the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT.”

The Joint Plan of Action is exactly the type of interim agreement that could serve as a first step towards resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. In theory, North Korea could agree to freeze its enrichment and reprocessing-related activities at Yongbyon and other nuclear facilities under IAEA monitoring so that it does not accumulate additional fissile material beyond its current stockpile during a specified period of time. In exchange, the other countries in the Six-Party Talks could agree not to impose additional sanctions against North Korea for the same period of time, while Six-Party Talks are held to negotiate a comprehensive solution. In exchange for suspending some of the existing sanctions, North Korea could agree to reduce some of its existing nuclear capabilities, such as removing or eliminating a portion of its stockpile of fissile material. As part of a comprehensive agreement, in which North Korea would accept limits on its civil nuclear program and enhanced international inspections, the other parties would agree to lift nuclear-related sanctions and provide peaceful nuclear cooperation and energy assistance. As in the case of the Joint Plan of Action, which was preceded by secret bilateral talks between the United States and Iran, North Korea and the United States could discuss an interim nuclear deal bilaterally and then present the agreement to the multilateral Six-Party Talks for approval.

However, there are three important differences between Iran and North Korea, which make a Joint Plan of Action for North Korea less likely. First, the United States already has a long and unhappy experience with interim agreements with North Korea that all ended badly. In each case, North Korea cheated or reneged on the deal. The October 1994 Agreed Framework, which included a freeze on plutonium production, collapsed in 2003 after Washington confronted Pyongyang with evidence that it was violating the agreement by pursing a secret enrichment program. The September 2005 Joint Statement suspended nuclear activities at Yongbyon under IAEA monitoring, but North Korea blew up the agreement by conducting a long-range missile test in April 2009 and its second nuclear test in May 2009. The February 2012 Leap Day Deal, which also suspended nuclear activities at Yongbyon, survived only a few weeks before North Korea once again broke the agreement with long-range missile tests in April and December 2012 and its third nuclear test in February 2013. Having been burned three times in a row, Washington is naturally wary of entering into another interim agreement without greater confidence that Pyongyang is serious this time. The dubious achievement of North Korean diplomacy has been to destroy almost all belief in Washington that diplomacy with North Korea is worth the effort.

Second, the effectiveness of sanctions against Iran and North Korea are very different. Iran is relatively vulnerable to international sanctions because its government revenues are heavily dependent on oil and gas exports and international financial transfers, which the United States and its allies have been able to attack effectively. Due to sanctions, Iran’s oil exports fell from an average of about 2.5 million barrels a day in 2009 to approximately 1 million barrels a day in 2013, and financial sanctions prevented Iran from getting access to most of the hard currency generated from these remaining oil sales. In addition, Iran’s quasi-democratic political system is relatively responsive to public pressure. Dissatisfaction with President Ahmadinejad, whose foreign policy caused international isolation and economic sanctions, led to the election of the most moderate candidate—Hassan Rouhani—in the June 2013 presidential election, who took office with a mandate to negotiate a nuclear agreement in order to remove sanctions and improve Iran’s economy.

In contrast, North Korea is relatively insulated from sanctions because the isolated North Korean economy is largely closed to international trade and finances. Indeed, most of its hard currency is probably generated by arms sales and illicit trade in drugs and cigarettes, which are more difficult to disrupt than legitimate trade. Moreover, China, which is North Korea’s main trading partner and source of foreign assistance, continues to protect North Korea from sanctions that Beijing fears could cause conflict or instability on the Korean Peninsula. For example, despite its anger over Pyongyang’s nuclear test in February 2013, Beijing worked to weaken the provisions of the subsequent UN Security Council Resolution 2094, which imposed additional sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and other illicit activities prohibited by previous UN resolutions. Although Beijing has taken some measures to enforce UNSCR 2094, such as the decision by the Bank of China in April 2013 to cut off transactions with North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank, China has not strictly implemented other provisions, such as restrictions on the export of “luxury goods” to North Korea. Most important, China continues to provide essential energy and food assistance to prop up the North Korean state and has not been prepared to risk withdrawing that assistance to force nuclear concessions. Finally, in contrast to Iran, economic deprivation and public opinion have relatively little effect on North Korean foreign policy, as long as the Pyongyang elite continue to enjoy a comfortable life.

The third important difference is the relative status and transparency of their respective nuclear programs. Iran has not yet acquired nuclear weapons, and all of its major nuclear facilities for the production of fissile material are believed to be declared and subject to international inspection. As far as we know, there are no additional undeclared nuclear facilities that could continue to operate while a nuclear freeze of the declared facilities is in place. As a result, the Joint Action Plan is based on a transparent and genuine bargain: real sanctions relief in exchange for a real nuclear freeze. In other words, the P5+1 are getting what they pay for. Unfortunately, the situation in North Korea is the opposite. In all likelihood, it has already acquired nuclear weapons, and most observers believe that it probably has a number of undeclared nuclear facilities associated with its enrichment program. Without a full accounting of these additional facilities and access by international inspectors to verify compliance, it is impossible to negotiate a genuine and transparent bargain. For example, suspending sanctions in exchange for a freeze on the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon has little value if North Korea continues to produce fissile material at undisclosed locations. For this reason, the United States has insisted that resumption of the Six-Party Talks be accompanied by a full declaration of North Korea’s nuclear facilities in order to make it possible to negotiate a genuine freeze as the first step toward a comprehensive solution. There seems little reason to believe that Kim Jung-un is willing to give up his nuclear secrets easily or that Beijing is prepared to force him to do so.

In conclusion, the Joint Plan of Action between Iran and the P5+1 is not likely to be duplicated for North Korea. Interim agreements have already been tried several times, and they have all failed because North Korea cheated or reneged each time. For many in Washington, negotiating with Pyongyang is seen as a futile effort that is bound to fail so there is little energy and enthusiasm for jumping back into negotiations unless Pyongyang demonstrates its sincerity with concrete actions. Iran agreed to the Joint Plan of Action because it needed relief from economic sanctions that were causing severe economic damage and potential political unrest In contrast, Pyongyang is under much less economic pressure to make nuclear concessions because of its isolated and closed economy, its brutal dictatorship, and Chinese economic protection. Finally, as long as Pyongyang continues to deny that it has additional nuclear facilities beyond those already declared, Washington has little incentive to negotiate an interim agreement that would fail to freeze a major portion of North Korea’s nuclear activities. I remain pessimistic about prospects for achieving an interim nuclear deal with North Korea along the lines of the Iran deal.

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