The United States and North Korea, deadly enemies over the Cold War period, sign an agreement in Geneva today that holds promise of a genuine rapprochement but contains unfortunate precedents in the quest for nuclear non-proliferation.
Whether the risks taken by the Clinton administration are prudent will not really be known for some five years, which is one of the problems. Short-term dangers of a military confrontation, however, have been averted.
First, the big positives: the Pyongyang regime has agreed to halt the operations of a five-megawatt graphite reactor which the CIA believes has produced sufficient plutonium for one or two nuclear bombs. More important, it has agreed to stop construction of a 50-megawatt reactor and a 200-megawatt reactor that could have produced plutonium for hundreds of nuclear bombs -- enough to make that small, backward Asian country a major nuclear power.
Second, the big negatives: North Korea is being rewarded for threatening to break out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with substantial Western aid. It will be supplied with oil to compensate for its loss of the electricity-generation of its graphite reactors. Even more, it will be granted the technology and finances for construction of two 1,000-megawatt light-water reactors -- cost: $4 billion -- with far less capacity to produce plutonium.
What kind of a message does the agreement send to other would-be nuclear-weapons powers? Iran, for example, has been denied even light-water reactors on the ground that it should have no nuclear capacity whatsoever.
Two other worries deserve mention. Spent fuel rods recently removed from the operating graphite reactor will not be shipped out of North Korea until significant elements of the new light-water reactors have been delivered, perhaps half a decade from now. Nor, until that time, will officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency be permitted special inspections of dump sites to assess the extent of past North Korean activities.
Despite these adverse elements, it is reassuring that South Korea, Japan and China have welcomed the U.S.-North Korea agreement. Their security is most immediately at risk. They evidently have decided it is better to lure North Korea into the outside world than let it remain isolated, stagnant, frustrated and ready to resort to military means to break out of its predicament.
A North-South dialogue is to be resumed. Washington and Pyongyang are to open liaison offices. South Korean businessmen will be permitted to travel north, not only to seek contracts but as major players in the nuclear reactor projects.
These are immense gains. But it is now more important than ever that the Non-Proliferation Treaty be renewed next year with provisions strong enough to prevent other nations from engaging in the nuclear blackmail that is paying off so handsomely for North Korea.