Liu: Hot Frogs and the N. Korea Nuke Deal

Viewed from Beijing—where I live and work—this week's deal to defuse the North Korean nuclear crisis isn't simply a breakthrough for the striped-pants diplomatic crowd. It's also cause for lots of people in the region to heave a huge collective sigh of relief.  Ever since Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test on Oct. 9 just 60 miles from the Chinese border, a nagging thought has haunted me:  even if Kim Jong Il isn't crazy enough to use his nukes for destructive purposes, the fact that his regime is playing around with nuclear weapons and fissile material makes some sort of messy nuclear mishap an uncomfortable possibility.

The same sort of jitters swept through the crimson pavilions of Beijing's Zhongnanhai leadership compound. Kim's nuclear test not only defied and embarrassed his Chinese patrons; it also brought home to Chinese leaders in the most visceral way that the increasingly erratic Pyongyang regime could be playing with fire. In a meeting with foreign diplomats late last year, a senior Chinese official "railed on and on about how irrational Kim had become," said one of the diplomats at the gathering, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

There's good reason to welcome the return of U. N. arms monitors to North Korea. In recent days much has been made of similarities between the current deal and the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated by North Korean and U.S. officials of the Clinton administration. Under the latest agreement, Pyongyang committed to "freezing" plutonium production within 60 days, in return for 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil (plus the promise of more) and the beginning of talks on normalizing its ties with Washington and Tokyo. Under a separate agreement, Washington is expected to relax its freeze on $24 million worth of North Korean assets in a Macau bank.

International inspectors will return to the Yongbyon complex, the base for Pyongyang's plutonium program, for the first time since their expulsion in 2003.  The expectation is that they won't be as shocked as arms monitors were in November 1994, when they gained access to Yongbyon under the terms of the Agreed Framework.

At that time, the visitors were dismayed to find murky green algae on the surface of the "cooling pond" that housed Yongbyon's spent nuclear fuel rods. The filtration system had broken down months earlier.  A bird's carcass floated on the surface of the pool; underwater cameras later revealed that many fuel rods were broken, or mired in goop at the bottom of the reservoir. The rods reacted with the murky water to create highly flammable gases, which were accumulating in the 40-foot-high building. "There was a lot of consternation," says Ken Quinones, who was then a U.S. State Department Korea expert and part of the delegation. "We thought, 'How could these rods be kept in such condition?'"

The outside world had assumed Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions had triggered a geopolitical crisis in 1993-4, but the scene of decrepitude suggested "a safety crisis too," Quinones said in an interview. "The scientists [in our group] were stunned; the situation was much more dangerous than anticipated. If ignited, the gases could've caused an explosion that blew off the roof, sending radioactive fallout all the way to Tokyo."   In subsequent months, international experts went about their work very gingerly; the Yongbyon facilities had been running for so long without proper maintenance that they considered the risk of an accident very real.

Quinones recalls that the North Korean technicians seemed "oblivious" to such danger; he had to speak sternly to get them to stop smoking cigarettes in the gas-filled building.  (To add to the surreal scene, he at one point noticed two frogs—"undoubtedly radioactive, these were hot frogs"—swimming around in the cooling pond. His diplomatic cables about the Yongbyon tableau referred to the amphibians as "Bud" and "Weiser.") With the help of the international experts, the gas buildup over the cooling pond was "stabilized" by July 1995. Still, the entire cleanup took a year.

Now, analysts are calling the current nuke deal a back-to-the-future agreement that evokes many aspects of the October 1994 Agreed Framework, which had committed Pyongyang to freezing and eventually dismantling the Yongbyon reactor in return for heavy-fuel oil, two light-water nuclear reactors for power generation and improved Washington-Pyongyang ties.

Bush administration officials were heavily critical of the Agreed Framework, which collapsed in 2002, after U.S. authorities reported that Pyongyang also was developing nukes through a secret highly enriched uranium (HEU) project. Now the U.S. administration is hailing the current deal, but there's no guarantee it won't unravel the way its predecessor did. Already, reports from North Korea suggest its authorities consider the current deal merely a "temporary suspension" of its nuclear program. And Chinese professor Zhang Liankui of the Central Party School in Beijing has accused the six-party talks of having paved the way for Pyongyang's "nuclear blackmail."

One obvious loophole is the fact that mechanisms by which Pyongyang disposes of its current nuclear arsenal—believed to involve six to eight bombs—have been deferred to future talks. Ditto for the fate of Pyongyang's reportedly clandestine highly enriched uranium efforts, which the Bush administration has contended were launched with the help of gas centrifuges provided by the infamous network headed by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan.

In short, Washington got the deal that it could get, not the one for which it was hoping (and holding out for years).  "It's certainly not the end of the process," cautioned U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, "It's really just the end of the beginning of the process." But if you happen to be living in Yongbyon's blighted shadow, the beginning of an imperfect deal looks preferable to no deal at all.