IT WAS NO surprise that last month's six-party talks in Beijing failed to record tangible progress toward resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. The surprise was that after 13 days of intense negotiation failed to produce an agreed ''statement of principles," the parties decided to reconvene after a short recess. When talks resume next week, a half-forgotten agreement may help close the gap.
In January 1992, North Korea and South Korea signed the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That agreement included an unqualified renunciation of nuclear weapons by Pyongyang and Seoul and an explicit prohibition on uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing while limiting the scope of ''denuclearization" to the Korean Peninsula. The declaration also provided for verification by means of on-site inspections.
These provisions address several of the most critical nuclear issues in North Korea today. Significantly, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, not only told Seoul recently that this 1992 accord remains ''valid" but also recalled that the pact had been approved by his father, Kim Il-Sung, sending an implicit but unmistakable signal that he is obligated to honor his late father's position.
The 1992 North-South Declaration is no panacea. Most important, it would permit North Korea to operate nuclear reactors for ''peaceful purposes." That issue was a major stumbling block during the last negotiating session in Beijing. The North reportedly insisted on this right, while the US side argued that Pyongyang had no plausible requirement for nuclear energy.
No doubt the world would feel more confident that North Korea had really had abandoned its nuclear weapons ambitions if it were to agree to forgo any nuclear activities whatsoever. This issue, however, need not block agreement on a statement of principles that would chart a path to a successful outcome.
Pyongyang surely understands that it could never obtain the benefits it seeks from the outside world until it fully implements all Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations, including effective international safeguards. On the other hand, it will be hard for the United States to persuade its negotiating partners in the six-party talks, much less Pyongyang, that even if North Korea verifiably abandons all proscribed nuclear activities, it still may not use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under any circumstances. After all, Washington supports a deal that would allow Iran (surely no less a threat) to use nuclear energy to generate electricity, and the president's proposal for a new international nuclear fuel cycle regime embraces just such an approach.
In practice, moreover, the amount of time required to implement any deal pushes any real-world issue about whether, when, and how North Korea would obtain access to nuclear energy well down the road. Meanwhile, North Korea will have ample opportunity to take up offers to provide substantial additions to its electric generation capacity.
These facts of life, in combination with the precedents established by the 1992 declaration, offer the possibility of a two-part deal when the talks resume next week. First, North Korea would commit to return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, implement the North-South declaration, and accept stringent safeguards to ensure that any permitted nuclear activities be confined to peaceful purposes. Second, all parties would affirm that North Korea would have the right to build and operate nuclear power reactors provided it implemented its commitments, while Seoul would also recommit to the North-South declaration. This would take advantage of the 1992 declaration to put get Pyongyang to subscribe to several key principles that could facilitate a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear issue while allowing Washington to agree in principle that North Korea may have access to nuclear energy for permitted peaceful uses under stringent safeguards.
Obviously, the best outcome would be for North Korea to forgo nuclear energy entirely. But the worst outcome would be for North Korea to continue to build nuclear weapons while the parties haggle endlessly. It is only one piece of a complex puzzle, but the declaration could provide a useful cornerstone upon which a new, comprehensive, and verified settlement of the Korean nuclear question may be built.
Arnold Kanter served as undersecretary of state from 1991-93. Daniel Poneman served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Both are principals in the Scowcroft Group in Washington.