Lingering Issues in the North Korea Nuclear Agreement

The latest agreement aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program left a lot of questions unanswered, including the question of whether the U.S. is fully in agreement with some of its negotiating partners. Analysts say China and South Korea have agendas of their own, and their goals may not match those of the Washington.

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North Korea has negotiated a deal that includes incentives to give up its nuclear programs, but it will take time to find out how or even if the agreement actually works. Many details are unresolved, and the United States will be depending on help from its partners in the six-party talks. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

The agreement was negotiated in talks that included China, South Korea, Russia and Japan. Derek Mitchell, a senior fellow at The Center for Strategic and International Studies, says in one sense, having multiple partners is a good thing.

Mr. DEREK MITCHELL (The Center for Strategic and International Studies): You can isolate North Korea, so it can be a blessing. But it can also be a bit of a curse, because it also can put pressure on the United States.

FLINTOFF: Mitchell says China and South Korea were the negotiating partners who touted the agreement as the greatest success but that their roles in the talks were a source of frustration to the US, particularly to officials at the Pentagon.

Mr. MITCHELL: They really feel that South Korea is not necessarily on the United States' side. We have very little confidence that when it comes down to brass tacks in the future, we are not going to be able to count on South Korea to put the kind of leverage to isolate North Korea as we would expect or hope from an ally.

FLINTOFF: Daryl Kimball is the executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. He says China and South Korea really helped to moderate the rigid positions that the US and North Korea brought to the table.

Mr. DARYL KIMBALL (Executive Director, Arms Control Association): As I understand it, the Chinese were particularly important in forcing Washington to decide on this draft before the North Koreans walked away from it.

FLINTOFF: Because of North Korea's claim that it has built nuclear weapons, the US went into the negotiations saying the North shouldn't have nuclear activity of any kind. But one of the concessions that North Korea won, in principle at least, is a light-water nuclear reactor to generate electricity in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons program. Derek Mitchell.

Mr. MITCHELL: And in fact, both the Chinese and the South Koreans put enormous pressure on the United States for this, so if the United States did not back down and the whole process broke down, they would blame the United States for the breakdown.

FLINTOFF: Mitchell says that for China and South Korea, stability on the Korean Peninsula is more important than whether North Korea gets a nuclear power plant. So far, the US is committed only to discuss a civilian nuclear reactor at what the agreement calls an appropriate time, provided that North Korea rejoins the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and fulfills all its obligations to United Nations inspectors. Daryl Kimball says the US is going to need help from its allies to convince North Korea that it's time to settle the dispute.

Mr. KIMBALL: The United States is also going to need its allies to force it to recognize the realities of the situation, that the United States cannot dictate the terms of disarmament to North Korea, especially as it continues to produce plutonium as we speak.

FLINTOFF: In November, the US, North Korea and their foreign negotiating partners are scheduled to grapple with the details that weren't spelled out in the latest agreement. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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