Behind the North Korean Nuclear Deal

After North Korea released a 60-page report last week detailing its intent to slowly shut down part of its nuclear program, President Bush removed the country from the administration's "Axis of Evil" list of states that sponsor terrorism. The declaration came after a rocky five-year negotiation process that included the U.S., China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, plus other members of the United Nations. At its most tense point, in the fall of 2006, military commander Kim Jong Il ordered a test of the country's nuclear abilities with little notice to the international community. But now, two years later, the country agreed to suspend key components of the program. Why? Most analysts say the concession is driven by the closed-off nation's desperate need for food and energy in the form of international aid.

In order to lift sanctions, global officials, including the Bush administration, now have six weeks to determine the validity of North Korea's concession. Assuming the concessions are authentic, the new question is how global relations with the formerly defiant country will change. To examine how North Korea's planned nuclear shutdown will affect its citizens and the rest of the world, Newsweek's Daniel Stone spoke to Dr. Victor Cha, a former top adviser on Asian Affairs to the Bush Administration, who now teaches international relations at Georgetown University. Excerpts:

What exactly did North Korea report in its declaration?
It's still unclear as to the actual contents of the report. But probably the most important portion of it is how much plutonium they've produced. One of the indications is that it may be less than what has been estimated over the years. But what's still important will be verifying what's in the declaration.

Why did the country do this now?
It's been a long time. People forget that this is a process that started in 2003, so that's almost five years. In particular, what was important for [North Korea] was the U.S. commitment to take them off the terrorism list and remove sanctions. You could tell it was well choreographed. The day before they provided this declaration, [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice had a piece in the Wall Street Journal basically saying that the U.S. would de-list them from the terrorism list and lift the sanctions once they submit the declaration. [Clearly,] the North Koreans wanted that in writing. The day after they got the assurance, they provided the declaration. They did it at this particular time because, for one, it was long overdo and, in their mind, there were clear incentives.

The North Korean government has appeared largely defiant of international policy. Is this in fact a surrender or a type of concession?
It's not an issue of surrender. It's really an issue of diplomacy. If five years ago, I had said that we would now be at this point with the North Korean administration, no one would have thought it'd be possible. In October of 2006, North Korea did a nuclear test and that was very, very serious. We didn't know where things would go from there. Now we're at this point where in spite of a nuclear test and two UN Security Council resolutions, they're collapsing part of their program: their facility. So it's a real victory for negotiation and diplomacy. It shows you can negotiate with a regime like this even though you don't believe their going to give up their weapons, but you can still make them act in certain ways.

What effect will this have on their sanctions and their relationship with the international community?
It's symbolically important for them. Practically speaking, it won't have a major effect on their sanctions. It's not like investment will just start flowing into the country. So there's really not much of a difference, but for symbolism, this is very important.

What does this mean for North Korea's diplomatic relations with the UN and other countries individually?
It will be able to qualify for different forms of development assistance from international financial institutions in a way that it couldn't before. The U.S. was formerly opposed to the application of that, but there's really no issue, now that the North Korea has been removed from the Axis [of Evil] characterization. But the question of Japan is still out there because Japan is obviously very important in these international financial institutions, particularly the Asia-based ones. Whether Japan will still oppose development assistance for North Korea is not clear. North Korea will still qualify for a lot of international aid now, more than it did before. But remember, North Korea is a member of the UN. It already has diplomatic relations with the European Union and most countries with maybe the exception of Japan and the U.S., so not all that much changes here, really.

Analysts speculate North Korea finally compromised out of desperation for food and fuel for its citizens. Will their lives begin to change because of better diplomatic relations?
For the average North Korean, no. Not at all. They'll still live under the pretty sparse conditions they do. Citizens there are not going to wake up tomorrow and feel like North Korea is a different place because their country has been taken off the terrorism list. That will take much, much longer.

Is there any question that the declaration might not be accurate?
It's difficult to say whether it's accurate. We shouldn't discount that this is the first declaration North Korea has ever given, and that they've given it to the six parties through China. That's important regardless of what's actually in the declaration. The whole question of how accurate it is will depend on the verification process and what the intelligence estimates are.

Does the process of North Korea stopping nuclear development actually make the world safer?
Definitely. The thing we have to remember is that there's a disabling process still taking place. That will continue. The part about the cooling tower, which they've shut down, means that even if they tried to roll back some of the stuff they're doing at the actual reactor facility, they couldn't operate the nuclear reactor again because they cannot cool it. Unless they want a meltdown, they cannot operate that reactor again. If they wanted to rebuild the cooling tower, it would take more than a year to do that. This effectively puts a cap on their ability to produce any more plutonium-based nuclear weapons.