Negotiating Nuclear Weapons with Iran, N. Korea

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This month has seen negotiations over the nuclear programs of two countries, but little progress. Iran resumed activities that could lead to uranium enrichment, possibly to be used for nuclear weapons. Also, the six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons program paused with no breakthroughs in sight. Corey Flintoff examines the issues that can make nuclear negotiations with foreign governments so difficult.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

In South Korea, government leaders met with counterparts from the North today in a ceremony to celebrate Japan's surrender at the end of World War II 60 years ago. That event ended decades of Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula. At today's meeting, there was some mention of the ongoing talks to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program. But the talks are suspended right now, and the North Koreans did not respond when South Korean politicians raised the subject.

Also nukewise, in Europe, France, Germany and Britain are desperately trying to get Iran to back away from its renewed uranium conversion program which could lead to weapons. As NPR's Corey Flintoff reports, nuclear weapons negotiations are always a delicate and complex process.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

Iran and North Korea would seem to have little in common beyond the suspect nuclear programs that led President Bush to include them with Iraq in a so-called `axis of evil.' One thing they do have in common is their claim that they have a right, like any other country, to a peaceful program to generate nuclear energy.

Mr. DARYL KIMBALL (Executive Director, Arms Control Association): Developing states do have a need to have energy, perhaps nuclear energy.

FLINTOFF: Daryl Kimball is executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.

Mr. KIMBALL: But the right to nuclear energy does not mean that they need to have the ability to produce enriched uranium and plutonium, which can also be used for nuclear weapons.

FLINTOFF: Kimball points out that under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, countries with peaceful nuclear reactors don't have to produce their own fuel. If they have foresworn nuclear weapons, such nations can buy atomic fuel from countries like the US and return that fuel after its been spent. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill is the chief US negotiator in the six-nation talks on North Korea. He says that the North has put itself into a different category.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HILL (Assistant Secretary of State): The problem we have is a a country that, frankly, you know, took a research reactor and told everyone it was a research reactor for decades, and then kicked out all the inspectors, withdrew from the NPT and, within two months, proudly proclaimed it was making bombs from this research reactor. So there's a bit of a problem here.

FLINTOFF: The US is now opposed to even a peaceful civilian nuclear program for North Korea.

On the other hand, Daryl Kimball notes that Iran is a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and does have a right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy, although the treaty is unclear on whether Iran also has the right to enrich uranium. Again, Daryl Kimball.

Mr. KIMBALL: Iran, which secretly built uranium-enrichment facilities, has broken the trust of the international community about its intentions, and that's why the United States, the European Union and other states are encouraging Iran to rebuild that confidence by voluntarily suspending the uranium-enrichment activities that could, at some point in the future, also be used to produce uranium for nuclear weapons.

FLINTOFF: Both Iran and North Korea have claimed that they're threatened by the United States and need to be able to defend themselves. North Korea, particularly, has said that it feels threatened by US alliances that put Japan and South Korea under a nuclear umbrella, meaning that the US might use nuclear weapons to defend them. Chief negotiator Christopher Hill scoffs at that.

Mr. HILL: Well, the only nuclear weapons that are threatening North Korea are their own nuclear weapons, and the notion that they need nuclear weapons because of our nuclear umbrella is something that I can deal with.

FLINTOFF: In addition to the issues of security and peaceful nuclear energy, there are many other factors that make the negotiations with both countries more complex. Both countries have long histories of hostility with the United States, reaching back to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the Korean War. James Walsh is the head of Harvard University's Managing Atom Project. He told an audience at The Brookings Institution that in the case of North Korea, the trust issue gives the various sides different priorities.

Mr. JAMES WALSH (Managing Atom Project, Harvard University): They want normalized relations; that's their key objective. And they say with an improved political relationship, all things are possible. They've said all along, `Let's be friends, then we can work out the nuclear issue.' And the US position is, `Well, let's work out the nuclear issue, then we can be friends.'

FLINTOFF: Richard Ragan directs the United Nations World Food Program in North Korea, a post that makes him and his family the only Americans allowed to live in that closed society. He points out that issues of national pride drive the North Korean side of the conflict more than the country's dire economic situation. And he says that the dislike between the US and North Korea can be the basis for a deeper relationship down the road, as happened with the US and Russia, Japan, Germany and Vietnam.

Mr. RICHARD RAGAN (Director, UN World Food Program, North Korea): Enemies are always intimately connected. All of North Korea has been programmed to remain on a knife's edge. The North Koreans that I work with see beyond this, I hope. Many of the ones that we work with will hopefully be the future leaders of the country, thus I think it's very critical that we continue to embrace our enemy during this difficult period.

FLINTOFF: Negotiations between Iran and the EU-3--Britain, Germany and France--are ongoing. The six-party talks with the US, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia are set to resume in the last week of this month. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

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