Iranian and North Korean Nuclear Programs in the Spotlight

Por • 3 oct, 2012 • Sección: Política

Alexander VORONTSOV 

01.10.2012. In many regards, the September, 2012 Nonproliferation Conference which convened in Moscow proved to be a remarkable event. Importantly, it combined plenary sessions and talks by invited speakers with six sections on the nuclear themes centered around North Korea and Iran.

The conference is a unique forum drawing staunch opponents – representatives of both Koreas, of Israel and Iran – into intense dialog. Scholars from the DPRK have visited every Moscow Nonproliferation Conference since it was held for the first time in 2010. As of today, broad inclusiveness is the forum’s established tradition.

The Korean Peninsula

Pyongyang’s team at the conference was led by Jang Song Chol, director of External Affairs and Disarmament Studies Departments of the Institute for Disarmament and Peace, which is run by the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

As a Korean affairs expert and chair of the section titled “Energy Security and Nuclear-Free Status of the Korean Peninsula: How to Achieve Both Goals”, the paper author was mainly interested in the host of issues pertinent to the nuclear problems on the Korean Peninsula. The view widely held across the world is that the North Korean controversial nuclear program grew out of Pyongyang’s political ambitions and adversarial stance vis-a-vis its neighbors. As a result, the growing energy needs of the North Korean economy are seldom taken into account, while the country has no carbohydrates reserves (oil and gas) and only a limited set of hydroenergy options, but sits on appreciable amounts of uranium and has serious reasons to tap into the nuclear energy potential. Under similar natural geographic circumstances, neighboring Japan and South Korea cultivate their nuclear energy sector (the former operated 54 reactors prior to the Fukusima disaster and the latter runs around 30), and take no hammering for doing so. In contrast, North Korea’s adopting the same strategy met with the Western powerful resistance. The DPRK envoy stressed in his talk that his country, like any other, simply must make due efforts to have its energy security guaranteed. The plan for a nuclear power plant has existed in the DPRK for years. The first project to this end – with the assistance from the Soviet Union – failed to go beyond picking an appropriate site as the USSR crumbled. Later the US pledged, as a part of the 1994 Agreed Framework, to build a couple of 1 MW light water reactors in North Korea by 2003, but G. Bush’s Administration was quick to scrap the corresponding treaty upon settling down in the White House. With the negative experiences piling, Pyongyang naturally decided in favor of constructing a light water reactor independently.

The North Korean speaker’s arguments, both strong and unconventional, clearly grabbed the attention of the audience. Touching upon the construction of a gas pipeline which is to link Russia and South Korea while traversing North Korea, he focused on the risks to which his country would be exposed, considering that N. Korea’s benefits under the contract are limited to transit fees, with no gas to be diverted to its needs. Pyongyang will be responsible for the security and technical condition of the pipeline segment to be hosted by North Korea, the project partners will be authorized to handle issues within its domestic jurisdiction, and vast areas of arable land would have to be sacrificed to the infrastructure. According to the speaker, the motivation on Pyongyang’s behalf was largely altruistic: Russia that regards energy resource export as its highest priority and the DPRK being friends, Pyongyang felt it would be a good idea to help Moscow advance its key interests along with pursuing those of all Koreans, regardless of the divide. Jang Song Chol held that the explanation behind the constant resistance Washington mounts implicitly to this and other trilateral projects – the electric power transit from Russia to South Korea via North Korea, the connection of the rail networks of both Koreas to Russia’s Trans-Siberian railroad – is that the US fears the increasing Russian centrality to the Asian energy cooperation and worries that the countries of the region first of all Washington allies might grow dependent on Russia for energy supplies. Jang Song Chol also said that the linkage between denuclearization and energy security on the Korean Peninsula is absolutely artificial. For Pyongyang, even a task as important as maintaining energy security cannot overshadow concerns over the sufficiency of its defense capabilities.

The Chinese speaker presented a curious analysis in his talk. He confirmed that Beijing would steer a course aimed at preventing the collapse of North Korea, steadily expanding the cooperation with the country. He opined that, when Kim Jong-il died in December, 2011, China took a number of preemptive steps to warn the US, Japan, and S. Korea against undermining the the DPRK fragile stability in the middle of the transition.

The US representative blamed the derailing of the 1994 Agreed Framework agreement and of the subsequent deals, along with the stalling of the six party talks in Beijing, entirely on the DPRK. He painted a picture based on the contrast between the prosperous and nuclear-free South Korea and the destitute but nuclear-armed North Korea. The speaker indicated that talks between Washington and Pyongyang might resume, but only if South Korea is involved. Jang Song Chol responded by saying that the inter-Korean relations are up to the Koreans and questioned whether his US counterpart actually represented the US or the ROK if he asserted that the road to Washington passed via Seoul.

The Russian speaker surveyed how the DPRK has dealt with its energy dilemma. He mentioned that the north got 70% of the energy generating capacities following the liberation of Korea, but most of the assets were destroyed by the US air raid during the Korea War. Besides, the energy consumption in North Korea dropped by 40% in the 1990ies when the USSR, the country’s main supplier of crude and spare components for the Soviet-built power plants, went off the scene. In fact, the DPRK leadership started to eye nuclear energy in the 1950ies, especially after Kim Jong-il toured Russia’s Obninsk nuclear power plant in 1956, the world’s first facility of the type, built in 1954. A technical assistance agreement was signed in 1959 and the USSR took to training hundreds of North Korean nuclear physicists. With the backing, North Korea created its own nuclear industry which, like elsewhere, served a dual purpose.

Evidently, the participation of the DPRK speakers in the conference and their competent reaction to the avalanche of questions were the forum highlights. In many instances, their talks came almost as a revelation for the audience.

Iran and Its Opponents

The debates attended by the Iranian scholars were another focal point during the conference. The country was represented by Dolatyar Mostafa, Director General of the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), and Tehran University professor of political sciences Hadian-Jazy Nasser. Their talks featured the generally familiar especially to observers monitoring the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue theses: they stated that Iran would not bow to pressure and sanctions, that denying Iran the rights available to other countries was unfair, and that in any talks the legitimate concerns of both sides must be accommodated and the adjustment of positions must be bilateral.

The message sent by the Iranian speakers was that if the country decides to build nuclear weapons, no external forces would be able to stop the process (even India and Pakistan, the two countries hardly better equipped technologically and financially than Iran, have created nuclear arsenals). Tehran, however, is not interested in becoming nuclear-armed for an array of reasons. Some of them were named. Its acquiring the nuclear status would trigger a chain reaction across the region, and if Iran’s opponents put nuclear warheads on missiles which can reach Tehran in a matter of 2-3 minutes, Tehran’s security would actually sink to an all-time low. Moreover, Iran’s current superiority over neighbors in conventional warfare would be depreciated if the security problem switches to the nuclear mode. Still, if the West launches a military campaign against Iran, its radicals pressing for a nuclear warfare program – a minority in the Iranian political spectrum at the moment – would emerge from the situation stronger than ever.

Getting over the current stalemate would take a weighty package of stimuli, not sanctions. If the approach is adopted, the top-sensitive issues – the allowable level of uranium enrichment, numbers of centrifuges, the list of facilities subject to international scrutiny, etc. – will finally become negotiable.

The Iranian and Israeli speakers predictably sparred over the Iranian nuclear program. A professor from Tel Aviv called Iran to demonstrate greater transparency and to agree to sweeping inspections, tighter restrictions, etc. The Iranian scholar suggested in return that the Israelis take a realistic look at their own country where not only any discussions but even brief mentioning of the national nuclear program are a taboo. The heated debate was by all means meaningful and should be counted among the achievements of the forum.

The political polyphony stemming from the nations’ divergent visions of security and from the complexity of the relations both between the nations and between some of the nations and the international organizations accompanied the forum throughout. The conclusion at which the majority of participants appeared to arrive was that these days, more than in any other epoch, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is an absolute necessity. The Treaty and the international groups enforcing it – the IAEA and others – implement their mission at the face of real challenges. No doubt, the Nonproliferation Treaty requires timely modernizations and a continuous adaptation to the evolving global conditions, part of the purpose being to ensure unbiased treatment of all countries on the foundation of shared and unambiguous criteria. Anyhow, no alternative to the treaty which provides a comprehensive mechanism of keeping the world’s whole nuclear sphere in check, looms on the horizon.

Alexander VORONTSOV is the Head of the Korea and Mongolia Department at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The paper is an account of the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference held in Moscow, the Marriott Grand Hotel, on September 6-8, 2012

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