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Update No: 022 - (28/02/05)

Global attention to North Korea in February focused on a single event; or more exactly, a statement. For the first third of the month, the prevailing expectation was - despite a lack of hard evidence for this - that Pyongyang would soon end its long boycott of dialogue on the nuclear issue and return to the six-party talks in Beijing, last held in June 2004.

Pyongyang drops a bombshell
On February 10, however, North Korea raised the stakes and temperature dramatically. A statement from the the DPRK ministry of foreign affairs, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), said that it felt "compelled to suspend our participation in the [six-party] talks for an indefinite period" because of the USA's hostile attitude. It added that Pyongyang had "manufactured nukes [sic] for self-defence," and would retain a "nuclear deterrent for self-defence under any circumstances."

Rather like Pyongyang's earlier and opposite declaration of peace and friendship with the US almost a month earlier on January 14, discussed in last month's Update, this double bombshell briefly made headlines around the world. Wrongfooting everyone is itself one of North Korea's weapons of mass distraction, and this was a classic example. If one aim was simply to get some attention, it must be judged a success.

Low-key reactions
Noteworthy too was the relatively low-key reaction of all concerned. The prevailing note was one more of sorrow than anger. The new US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, on her first visit to Europe in that capacity, was notably mild. With rare unanimity, the US, China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and others all urged North Korea to return to the talks.

There were several reasons for the apparent calm. Although this is North Korea's clearest claim yet to have nuclear weapons, it is by no means the first. After long insisting that its nuclear research was peaceful, for the past two years Pyongyang has repeatedly defended its right to have, and ever more openly hinted in private and public at actually possessing, a nuclear deterrent. So this information as such is not the bombshell it at first seemed. 

Another reason to keep a cool head is that, in this high-stakes poker game, there is just a chance that Kim Jong-il might be bluffing. In the absence of a physical test - and despite rumours that Pakistan's Dr A Q Khan had helped on that front - there can be no certainty that Pyongyang has successfully weaponized plutonium for any form of delivery; much less miniaturized it to fit on its Nodong (short-range) or Taepodong (medium-range) missiles. That is the real worry to Japan - and even the US, whose controversial missile defence shield, still in its infancy, is being planned very much with North Korea in mind.

Complacency is ill-advised
Yet complacency on this score seems ill-advised. By most estimates North Korea has had over a decade to work on plutonium made with spent fuel from its Yongbyon reactor, before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gained access in the early 1990s. On this basis the CIA has long supposed that Pyongyang might have one or two nuclear devices. It could now have made more - perhaps half a dozen - using 8,000 spent fuel rods taken from Yongbyon after IAEA inspectors were expelled at the end of 2002. 

That would increase the threat in two ways. Whereas one or two bombs would be kept for self-defence, a production line might tempt Pyongyang to sell them. Nuclear proliferation - especially to terrorists - is a major US nightmare; and would surely constitute the 'red line' that the Bush administration, for all its rhetoric, has failed to lay down so far. North Korea's drug trafficking and counterfeiting activities, both well documented, suggest few scruples in selling anything to anyone. Even if Kim Jong-il would surely not be so foolish as to supply al-Qaida directly, this might come about through a chain of intermediaries.

Did the DPRK sell nuclear materials to Libya?
In that context, reports in early February that a uranium derivative, uranium hexafluoride (also known as UF6) found among Libya's nuclear materiel, now in US hands, may have been sourced from North Korea set alarm bells ringing. (Though not in itself fissile, UF6 can be enriched into weapons-grade material if fed into nuclear centrifuges.) Although some queried how new or accurate this intelligence is, the US at once sent two National Security Council (NSC) officials - one was Michael Green, the NSC's new director for Asia - to Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo, specifically to share this information. President Hu Jintao of China, most unusually, met this relatively junior delegation personally. A key US aim is to get China to up the ante from just hosting the six-party talks - itself a more activist stance than Beijing's passive past diplomacy - and lean harder on Kim Jong-il.

Own goal
Ironically, Pyongyang itself seems to have achieved that (own) goal with its February 10 statement. By all accounts Beijing was furious. Besides more criticism of North Korea in the Chinese press and on websites than is usual, president Hu personally reaffirmed both the six-party process and the need to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. A senior party official, Wang Jiarui, was dispatched to Pyongyang to talk urgently to Kim Jong-il. 

In response, the dear leader - little seen of late, fuelling reports of a power struggle in Pyongyang - was quoted directly (which is rare) by KCNA as supporting both the goal of denuclearization and the six-party process. As KCNA reported him on February 22: "We will go to the negotiating table anytime if there are mature conditions for the six-party talks thanks to the concerted efforts of the parties concerned in the future, he [Kim] said, expressing the hope that the United States would show trustworthy sincerity and move." 

What is Kim Jong-il's game?
This statement added to the frenzy of speculation since February 10 on the key question of motive. Several hypotheses have been adduced. One is the Libya uranium allegation, which will have rattled Pyongyang on two fronts. Proliferation aside, to be producing UF6 supports US charges that North Korea has a second covert nuclear programme using highly enriched uranium (HEU). The HEU allegation was what precipitated the second and ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis, 28 months ago. Pyongyang denies any HEU activity, and the US is oddly reluctant to go public with its evidence. China too has been sceptical on HEU, urging that the admitted plutonium programme be dealt with first.

Yet it is not Pyongyang's style to react so immediately as this. In follow-up comments explaining their stance, DPRK diplomats took umbrage at comments by Condoleezza Rice in her confirmation hearings, where their country was cited as one of six "outposts of tyranny." Yet if North Korea is paying close attention, as it surely should be, then it knows this is the exception - but perhaps regards it as proving the rule. Other comment, including President Bush's State of the Union address, was notably mild in its rhetoric.

Missing subtleties, or sore spot?
One possibility is that Pyongyang's own publicly monolithic politics may make it hard to grasp the balances and nuances of Washington: for instance, that the North Korea Human Rights Act, a particular bugbear, came out of Congress rather than the executive - and has not been fully funded. An earlier diatribe against Human Rights Watch implied that North Korea cannot even tell the difference between an NGO and the US government.

Or again, Kim Jong-il may have read only too well the theme of a crusade for democracy in recent Bush rhetoric, and feel vulnerable. A strange passage, which almost no western commentary appears to have picked up on, in the February 10 statement hints that this is a sensitive area: "The US now foolishly claims to stand by the people in the DPRK while negating the government chosen by the people themselves. We advise the US to negotiate with dealers in peasant markets it claims they are to its liking [sic] or with representatives of 'the organization of north Korean defectors' on its payroll if it wishes to hold talks."

A domestic motive?
So the DPRK's own politics may be one factor. The foreign ministry statement came out while China and South Korea were off celebrating the oriental new year holiday, and just before North Korea's equivalent: Kim Jong-il's birthday on February 16. This year is also the tenth anniversary of Kim's Songun (military-first) policy. Claims of growing tension were at once used in the DPRK's domestic media to call for stronger unity around the leader. This may thus be an attempt to paper over growing signs of both elite and popular dissent as to the regime's direction. Or proud reaffirmation of a right to nuclear activity may serve (as in Iran) to unite factions otherwise divided, for instance on reform. It could mean that hardliners have the upper hand - or conversely, a frustrated Kim Jong-il may want to know once and for all if George W Bush is prepared to engage with him or not.

The dear leader's comments to his Chinese visitor, President Hu's emissary, support the latter view. He has a point. The Bush administration remains split on whether to engage North Korea at all, or wait (or work) for regime change. Advocates of the latter are encouraged by rumours of elite unrest in Pyongyang; ignoring not only the risks attendant in any North Korean collapse, but also the real chance that Kim Jong-il might be replaced by something even worse - hardline generals, for instance. On the other hand, playing the nuclear card as he has just done is not calculated to win the dear leader friends in Washington, or indeed anywhere. There is also the simple possibility that Washington prefers one confrontation at a time and currently the focus is on the complexities of Iran. 

Bad for business
It also does no favours to those few dedicated optimists who are trying to tempt foreign investors to put their money into North Korea. It seems extraordinary if Kim Jong-il, who is no fool, cannot grasp how his nuclear antics undermine the economic reforms to which he also seems committed. To work, the latter require substantial foreign investment in a nation desperately short of capital. This simply will not be forthcoming while the nuclear crisis persists. Kim literally faces the textbook economics choice: guns or butter.

Admittedly, and remarkably, South Korea swiftly said that inter-Korean projects like the Kaesong special industrial zone will continue, unless the situation deteriorates further. It is odd that Seoul apparently forswears using economic aid for political leverage. But the worm may be turning; even before the nuclear announcement, the South deflected a new Northern demand for 500,000 tonnes of fertilizer (more than usual) by saying this can be discussed at an inter-Korean economic committee - which the North has been boycotting.

Noises off
Continuing to aid a nuclear North Korea may also exacerbate already strained relations between Seoul and Washington. The US basically looks askance at Kaesong anyway, and has insisted that South Korea enforce restrictions on the transfer of sensitive technologies into the zone under the Wassenaar Arrangement, of which Seoul is a signatory. Despite denials of a rift, the US will also not be keen if South Korea does in the end send half a million tons of fertilizer (as on past form it probably will), as if everything were normal.

The complex wider relations between the six parties also seem to be turning negative. A China angered by closer US-Japan defence cooperation, particularly over Taiwan, and by US pressure on Europe not to lift its arms sales embargo to China, is hardly likely to go out on a limb for Washington over the North Korean issue. 

Plaintiff or cynic? Light from literature
Needless to say, this whole episode also inspired a fresh crop of op-ed articles on what Pyongyang really wants, and how to handle it. Such commentary tends to fall into two main camps: hawks who see North Korea as incurably evil and playing a cynical game, versus doves who aver that in his own peculiar way Kim Jong-il really does want to deal.
Over the years these positions have become entrenched, with new angles and evidence all too rare. One exception was a New York Times op-ed on February 13 by B. R. Myers, an expert on North Korean literature, which shed fascinating if depressing light on the kinds of stories Kim Jong-il's regime tells its own people about these matters. As Myers shows, this if anything mirrors the western hawk view: "School textbooks, wall posters, literary works: all celebrate a cynical 'attack diplomacy' that makes a frightened and uncertain world dance to the drum of Kim Jong-il." Thus a novel on the nuclear crisis published in 2003, The Barrel of a Gun, not only has the dear leader forcing the Clinton administration to its knees, but cheerfully admits that Pyongyang signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985 merely for diplomatic purposes - and then proceeded to "ignore" it. 

What next?
What happens next is unclear. China will doubtless lean heavily on Kim to return to the six-party talks, which would be hailed as progress. But around the table North Korea may well stall as usual, or at least continue to demand assurances of US goodwill while itself giving little away. This stalemate could drag on for some time. With memories of how a decade ago Jimmy Carter defused a similar (but tenser) standoff by visiting Pyongyang, there is speculation that Bill Clinton, who recently visited Seoul, might play a similar role now of cutting the Gordian knot. In the last weeks of his presidency Clinton was ready to go to Pyongyang to sign a missile agreement, but time ran out. Whether he would be acceptable to his successor as an envoy is unclear, though they get on at a personal level.

The fear, however, must be that despite Pyongyang's latest gesture, neither the US nor other powers will prove any more inclined to prioritize the North Korean nuclear issue now than previously. In which case North Korea (or Kim Jong-il's), back to the wall, may be driven to some new attention-seeking gesture - perhaps a nuclear test, to seek to settle things once and for all and to perhaps feel that it is they who are driving the situation. Thus as of now the omens do not look good - unless the two principals, the US and DPRK, can find a way to trust each other and deal seriously. We live in hope. 

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