WASHINGTON -- The agreement reached this weekend between the United States and North Korea keeps a potent weapon pointed at the West and Asia until Washington starts to deliver on promises of billions of dollars worth of new technology and better relations with the isolated Communist regime.
The weapon is 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods removed in late spring from a nuclear reactor and which, if reprocessed, could yield four to five nuclear bombs in addition to the one or two North Korea may have already. The rods now are stored in a pool where they are subject to corrosion and radiation leakage, so some means of removal or long-term storage must be arrived at soon.
The failure of the U.S.-North Korean agreement even to address this problem in a serious way is a key weakness of the accord. The United States had hoped to get the rods removed from North Korea, or, at a minimum, work out some way to prolong their storage.
Before North Korea agrees to the rods' safe disposal, the agreement suggests, it expects progress on what it wants from the United States.
During weeklong talks, U.S. envoy Robert L. Gallucci promised that, in exchange for North Korea's freezing its nuclear program, the United States would arrange financing for two light-water reactors, costing about $4 billion, that would make the country's nuclear power much harder to use for weapons.
In addition, the United States promised an interim fuel supply while North Korea converts to the new technology. It also pledged to move toward normal diplomatic relations, starting with establishment of liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang, and "to reduce barriers to trade and investment."
North Korea already has agreed to a temporary freeze of its nuclear program, meaning that it won't try to reprocess the fuel ++ rods soon. But it won't permanently freeze its nuclear program until it gets "assurances for the provision of [light-water reactors] and for arrangements for interim energy alternatives." If the United States comes through quickly, North Korea will seal its reprocessing facility before having to deal with the rods, removing the chance that they will be converted to bombs.
Thus the agreement was front-loaded with U.S. political and financial concessions. Where the money will come from, and how the costs will be shared among the United States and Asian allies, is not clear.
At the same time, the agreement holds out the prospect of achieving diplomatically what some American hawks believed could be accomplished only through sanctions, military threats, air strikes or even war.
This would create a North Korea without the capacity of a large nuclear arsenal that could threaten Asia, trigger a new arms race and eventually help rogue states such as Iran and Libya join the nuclear club. Moreover, it would gradually be linked to the civilized world, improving prospects for Asian stability.
Considering what the United States wants North Korea to do, American officials had no choice but to present a "compelling package" of concessions up front, argues Spurgeon Keeny, president of the Arms Control Association, a Washington think tank that promotes curbs on weapons of mass destruction. U.S. demands, he noted, go well beyond what's called for in the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"Even at $4 billion," he said, light-water technology "is cheap compared with another war." He said there's a "better than even chance" that a broad solution will be found.
With the death of Kim Il Sung and consolidation of power by his son, Kim Jong Il, "we now know that the successor state seems to want to go through negotiations to an overarching solution that will take it out of the nuclear-weapons business."
If so, North Korea is hedging its bets. Nothing in the agreement commits it to more than a "freeze," meaning that North Korea could at some point revive its program.
Construction of two new reactors will be halted, and a reprocessing site will be sealed and monitored by international inspectors. Although Mr. Gallucci said he expected them eventually to be dismantled, he didn't get this pledge in writing.
The agreement states that the North "remains prepared" to implement a joint declaration with South Korea on denuclearization but offers no specifics.
North Korea also said it is prepared to remain part of the international nuclear treaty. Last year, it withdrew and then "suspended" its withdrawal and claimed a halfway status, not subject to full controls.
But the Pyongyang regime still is prepared to quibble about what the treaty means. Mr. Gallucci insisted at a Geneva news conference early yesterday that, by agreeing to international safeguards, North Korea accepted the principle of so-called special inspections.
This would mean that international inspectors could finally get inside suspected nuclear waste sites whose discovery many months ago triggered the crisis.
Mr. Gallucci also said that North Korea would not get light-water reactors unless it agreed to the inspections and disclosure of how much nuclear fuel it had diverted in the past.
This wasn't spelled out in writing, and Pyongyang's negotiator, Kang Sok Ju, offered a different interpretation:
"At the present time we have never recognized special inspections, and we have never talked about that," he said, repeating North Korea's charge that International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors showed bias against his country. "So our consistent position is that the issue of the separate inspections could depend on how much the partiality of the IAEA officials will be redressed."
Giving perhaps a one-line summary of how North Korea views the agreement, Mr. Kang also noted that his country "will certainly take a step-by-step approach with regard to the freezing of our nuclear facilities."
This means that, far from being resolved, the North Korean crisis is on a long, slow route to a settlement, with possible setbacks in store.