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Update No: 061 - (01/06/08)

North Korea: A nuclear declaration, at last?
The North Korean nuclear roller-coaster, while too slow-moving to qualify as a seriously wild ride, certainly has enough twists and turns. A month ago, video evidence published by the US of DPRK involvement in Syria’s suspected secret Al-Kabir nuclear site, destroyed by Israeli bombing last September, seemed calculated to further delay any chance of the nuclear Six Party Talks (6PT) getting back on track; in that this confronted Pyongyang with proof of a connection which it had indignantly denied, with dire implications of nuclear proliferation to boot. Al-Kabir looked uncomfortably like the DPRK’s Yongbyon reactor.

Unsunk by Syria, after all
Yet we did note the contrary possibility, in this looking-glass Le Carre world where things are rarely what they seem: to wit, that this was a move to get the Syria connection, hitherto merely a murky subject of rumour, out into the public domain. And so it proved. Far from sinking the 6PT, this seems to have galvanised them back to life; apparently vindicating the chief US negotiator Chris Hill’s audacious and controversial strategy of putting both Al-Kabir and another longtime bugbear – Pyongyang’s suspected but stoutly denied second separate nuclear programme, using highly enriched uranium (HEU) – ‘off balance sheet’.

The idea, modelled on early negotiations between the US and Mao’s China, is that matters which the other party for whatever reason cannot or will not admit outright or in public get shunted into a separate siding. In this case the suggestion is that both the Syria link and the UEP will be the subject of a secret memo between the US and DPRK; with the former expressing its concerns and the latter acknowledging them – or at least not denying them. That will leave the 6PT free to concentrate on the core issue of North Korea’s now admitted (but also originally long-denied) plutonium-based programme; and to move this on from its current second phase of disablement into full dismantlement and nuclear disarmament.

19,000 pages of records
At all events, after many past longueurs the pace picked up in May. On May 12 Sung Kim – the State Department’s director of Korean affairs, and one of several Korean-Americans holding key posts at State – returned from his second visit to Pyongyang in as many weeks. Granted the privilege, denied to most, of entering and leaving North Korea from and to the South via the border village of Panmunjom, Kim brought back with him 18,822 pages of records, dating back to 1986, from the reactor and reprocessing plant at Yongbyon. Some of these were subsequently waved under the noses of journalists at a press conference in Washington. While it will take some weeks to translate and study all these documents, this was taken as a sign that Kim Jong-il is finally ready to play ball.

A big grain reward from Uncle Sam
Days later, on May 16 the US announced that it will provide 500,000 tonnes of food aid to North Korea over the next year – but denied, absurdly, that this was a reward for nuclear compliance. Such denials are routine, yet the American scholar Marcus Noland has shown how over many years the timing of US grain aid to the DPRK, which was once substantial, has tracked the ups and downs of the nuclear state of play.

This new major assistance comes not a moment too soon, given North Korea’s dire straits (discussed below). The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) promptly thanked the US, not an everyday occurrence: saying this will not only help ease the DPRK’s food shortage, but also help promote “understanding and confidence” between the two countries.

Under this plan, reportedly negotiated by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) over several months, 400,000 tonnes of grain is to be sent via the UN World Food Programme (WFP). The rest will be channelled through US NGOs, such as MercyCorps, which have long experience in the DPRK. Delivery will begin in June, given the urgency. 

From port to mouth
Operational modalities remain to be finalized; USAID said that an experts' meeting to that end will be held in Pyongyang shortly. But the DPRK is said to have accepted much tighter “port to mouth” monitoring than hitherto, to allay suspicion that aid is diverted to the elite and military. Resentment of such intrusive monitoring is thought to have been why in 2005 North Korea forced WFP to drastically cut back its operation, which had been the agency’s largest in the world: feeding 6 million people or over a quarter of the population, after the terrible famine of 1996-98 took at least a million lives. 

Kim Jong-il expected China and South Korea to make up the shortfall, with less stringent conditions. In fact both have cut food aid, partly in protest against the DPRK’s nuclear test in October 2006. With floods last summer decimating the 2007 harvest, North Korea’s food shortage is now critical. In recent weeks South Korean NGOs have begun to report deaths from starvation, even in the ‘ricebowl’ Hwanghae provinces in the southwest.

A nuclear declaration: “getting to getting there”
Returning to matters nuclear, on May 19 the ever voluble Hill still sounded cautious, as quoted by Reuters: “We are getting to the point where the declaration is coming. I can't tell you precisely days or weeks but I think we are getting to the point where we are going to be, possibly, getting to this declaration…. We expect to have, kind of, a quickening pace in the next few weeks.” 

Just days later, the getting to getting there and quickening pace seemed already well under way. On May 22 Hill said that “things are moving ahead”, while others (unnamed) in the loop suggested that North Korea might finally hand over its nuclear declaration, only five months late, as early as the following week. This would be given to China as chair of the 6PT, who would furnish it to the other four members. A plenary 6PT meeting would follow in due course, but not necessarily right away.

Blowing up Yongbyon
More dramatically, Kim Sook, South Korea’s new chief nuclear negotiator, said on May 20 that soon after handing over its nuclear declaration, North Korea will blow up the cooling tower at its Yongbyon atomic complex to symbolise its commitment to disarmament. This would indeed be a dramatic gesture; though cynics may wonder if such an explosion would render impossible any future archaeology of the kind that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was once keen to do on-site, so as to disinter Yongbyon’s hidden history.

Rather than speculate unduly, we should await the coming month. Past experience of ups and downs counsels against premature euphoria. Many in Washington, not only hawks of the John Bolton persuasion, are uneasy at any deal which may let Kim Jong-il off the hook regarding Syria and/or HEU. Even on the core agenda of plutonium, pitfalls remain: not least, how much and how many weapons the DPRK will declare, and whether the US and other interlocutors can be satisfied that this is indeed the full story. Further verification will certainly be needed, which the Korean People’s Army (KPA) will not be keen on. 

WMD includes CBW, and more
So there is plenty that can still go wrong. And this is only a beginning, since the nuclear issue by no means exhausts the long list of threats presented by North Korea – or even its weapons of mass destruction (WMD). If the precedent for what Washington now hopes for from Kim Jong-il is Libya’s Qadhafi, then be it noted that the arsenal which Libya handed over also included materials for chemical and biological warfare (CBW). Pyongyang too is widely believed to pursue CBW, but this has never yet been a topic of formal negotiation.

Then there are missiles. The US had been discussing these with North Korea, separate from the nuclear issue, in the Bill Clinton era: a dialogue which the incoming George W Bush, in his initial ABC (Anything But Clinton) mode, simply stopped. The DPRK’s missile arsenal remains an especial concern to Japan, which lies within range of it. The Washington Post on May 17 quoted Japan’s beleaguered premier, Yasuo Fukuda, as saying that: “the nuclear issue, the missile issue …. and the abduction issue would come as a set of three – called a trilogy… Lacking any one of the three would not solve the matter.”

Now isolated as a solitary hardliner in the 6PT since Bush’s U-turn from his early ‘axis of evil’ rhetoric to embrace engagement, Japan is gritting its teeth for Washington’s expected next reward once the nuclear declaration is received: removing the DPRK from the State Department’s list of regimes regarded as sponsoring terrorism. Tokyo hoped that the US would not do this while the abductions issue, dating back to the 1970s, remains unresolved. But just as the US suppressed its own concerns about counterfeiting and more (remember Banco Delta Asia?) so as to prioritise a nuclear deal at any cost, so it will not let doubts about a few dead Japanese obstruct this greater prize. Such is the cold calculus of statecraft.

How hungry?
It may also seem cold to emphasize, as so often, the nuclear issue rather than the plight of North Korea’s long-suffering people. On the latter, the remarkably detailed and uniformly grim reports of Good Friends, a South Korean Buddhist NGO, offer a plausible if largely unconfirmed account of almost unrelieved and worsening misery. They can be read at A recent contents list gives the flavour:

North Korea Today 127th Edition May 2008

People Starving to Death in Most South Hwanghae Province [counties]
Weakened Immune Systems Causes Sudden Deaths
70-80% of Youth Stopping Schoolwork, South Hwanghae Province
People Busy Discussing Food Alternative
Grandmother Commits Suicide over Her Grandson’s Death
A Nursing Home in Shinpo County Seen 8 Deaths in One Month
Grave Concern for Mass Scale of Death within One Month
“Government Released Its Own Fund for the Last Time”
“Still Capable of Sustaining Ourselves? Far From It”
Government Is Aware That People Will Starve To Death”
A Rapid Increase in Crimes Committed by Discharged Soldiers

Writing in Newsweek’s May 26 issue, Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard – authors of a major study of North Korea’s 1990s famine – warn that once again famine is looming; the new US aid may not come in time. They call on China, South Korea and even Japan to plug the gap; or else “hunger will likely claim innocent victims once more.” They combine this, rather unexpectedly, with a sideswipe at WFP for crying wolf too often in recent years. In fact (they claim) the DPRK’s food crisis was until now less extreme than regularly painted by the UN body, which in their view overestimated the amount of grain that constitutes a survival ration in North Korea (460 grams) by around 20%. (Either way this is meagre.)

But this time it’s for real. Both local and global food prices are soaring, yet Kim Jong-il’s benighted regime is still cracking down on the markets which are most of his subjects’ only way to survive. Both North Korea’s famine and the nuclear issue alike appear dismal and interminable sagas, each now well over a decade old. One can but hope, against experience, that an end might begin to be in sight for these twin scourges.

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