Books on North Korea
Update No: 046 - (22/02/07)
Will the deal hold?
It is just possible that future historians will record 13 February, 2007 as
a turning point: not only in resolving North Korea's long-standing nuclear
issue, but also in the DPRK's wider relations with the world. On that date the
long-running six-party nuclear talks - both Koreas, the US, China, Japan and
Russia - which days earlier had seemed close to collapse, finally reached a
detailed agreement on how to begin (if no more) the long process of nuclear
disarmament by Pyongyang, and much more besides.
Even on paper this is a remarkable triumph for diplomacy, albeit an ironic one.
In effect the Bush administration, after six years without a consistent policy
and four years into a second, avoidable North Korean nuclear crisis, has now
signed up to a deal whose broad shape undeniably resembles the 1994 US-DPRK
Agreed Framework (AF) reached by Bill Clinton - which Republicans had excoriated
as conceding too much to a rogue state. The Democrats who now control Congress
did not fail to note this, while regretting that Bush did not see the light
earlier - before the DPRK tested a nuclear device in October.
Must be multilateral
One way that Bush clearly differs from Clinton has been in insisting on a
multilateral rather than a bilateral process - to the chagrin of Pyongyang,
which likes the idea of talking one-on-one as equals to the global superpower.
With China under President Hu Jintao keener than his predecessors to take an
active role as honest broker, the rather unwieldy six-party process got under
way in August 2003. It was stymied initially by an unrealistic US demand - at
the insistence of Washington's hawks, notably vice-president Dick Cheney - for
North Korea's complete, verifiable, irreversible nuclear disarmament (CVID),
more or less upfront.
The US stance eased slightly in 2005 with the second Bush administration. A new
head of delegation and assistant secretary of state for Asia, Christopher Hill,
an experienced negotiator in the Balkans, after great effort in September 2005
cajoled North Korea into signing up to an outline of principles. This seemed
stillborn: it was at once interpreted quite differently by Washington and
Pyongyang, while the US Treasury Department's decision at the same time to
pursue North Korea for financial crimes gave Kim Jong-il a pretext to take his
bat home for over a year. Even when six-party talks finally resumed in
mid-December, they got nowhere; North Korea's chief negotiator, vice foreign
minister Kim Kye-gwan, would discuss nothing nuclear but demanded the immediate
lifting of all US financial sanctions. Many wondered aloud if the six-party
format had run its course.
Such gloom just weeks ago makes the new agreement all the more remarkable.
As noted in last month's Update, what broke the ice was a bilateral meeting
between Hill and Kim in Berlin in mid-January. Notwithstanding Bush's professed
aversion to bilateralism, this was clearly beneficial: despite denials from DC,
there is little doubt that the basic shape of the February agreement was
sketched in Berlin. The six would hardly have been ready to meet again so soon
without assurance that this would not be another wasted journey.
Not that this pre-planning guaranteed plain sailing when the sextet
reassembled in Beijing on February 8. North Korea not only drives a hard
bargain, but one never knows what it may choose to raise as a crunch point. This
time, apparently, Kim Kye-gwan said nothing about US financial sanctions - but
instead held out for energy aid on a scale way beyond what the other parties
could realistically offer. That stubbornness brought the talks close to
collapse, and only a marathon 16 hour session into the small hours on February
12-13 saved the day. Tight Chinese redrafting and chairing was also credited.
The deal thus snatched from the jaws of defeat is remarkable in many ways.
Not least, in contrast to the vagueness of seemingly interminable on-off talks
hitherto, it specifies tight timelines which in the coming weeks will show
whether the parties really mean it or not.
Thus several separate specific steps are envisaged within sixty days. By
mid-April North Korea "will shut down and seal for the purpose of eventual
abandonment" its Yongbyon nuclear site - including a reprocessing facility
which is Pyongyang's only known source of plutonium for bomb-making. This
shutdown - the US insists this is more than the mere "freeze" of
Yongbyon earlier, under the AF - will be verified by the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA), whose inspectors were expelled in early 2003 when Yongbyon
was reopened and the DPRK left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the
first signatory state ever to do so. Senior IAEA officials are expected to visit
Pyongyang early in March to discuss the modalities of implementing the agency's
return to the DPRK.
HEU row looms
Also within 60 days, North Korea must list all of its nuclear programmes
which are to be eventually given up. This is potentially a can of worms, as
there is no way to know if any such list will be fully comprehensive and
exhaustive. In particular, the agreement is oddly silent on whether the DPRK has
a second nuclear weapons programme based on highly enriched uranium (HEU). It
was US accusations, denied by Pyongyang, of a covert HEU operation which
unleashed the second North Korean nuclear crisis in late 2002. The US has been
shy in offering proof, but this is assumed to come from revelations by
Pakistan's former nuclear entrepreneur Dr A Q Khan. It is hard to envisage
either the US dropping its HEU concerns, or North Korea coming clean. This is
just one of several knotty issues which the new six-party agreement postpones or
fudges rather than resolves.
How much oil upfront?
Kim Jong-il is not known for doing something for nothing," so naturally
he will be rewarded for this. As under the 1994 AF, the quid pro quo takes the
form of badly needed energy assistance. For shutting Yongbyon North Korea will
receive aid equivalent to 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil (HFO). A further 950,000
tons, worth some US$300 million, will follow once it furnishes "a complete
declaration of all nuclear programmes and disablement of all existing nuclear
facilities, including graphite-moderated reactors and reprocessing plant."
Ominously, Pyongyang media reported the new deal as offering the full million
tons right away - and in exchange for a merely temporary shutdown at Yongbyon.
Pessimists may readily anticipate angry exchanges over who said who would do
what first in mid-April.
Cautious optimists, however, dare to hope the deal will not unravel,
inasmuch as it also addresses a wider range of underlying diplomatic issues.
Thus also within 60 days, both the US and Japan will start bilateral talks with
North Korea. Washington will move to end longstanding sanctions under the
Trading with the Enemy Act - these are decades old, and quite separate from the
recent US financial measures - and also the DPRK's designation by the State
Department as a state sponsor of terrorism. With Tokyo the main agenda is
"the settlement of unfortunate past" (sic): code for past abductions
of Japanese, and potential compensation by Japan for its occupation of Korea
from 1910 to 1945.
Out of the loop?
Neither of these looks easy. The US can easily lift trade sanctions, but
some in the Bush administration - reportedly kept out of the loop over the
details of the Beijing deal by the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice - are
said to be unhappy at letting North Korea off the terrorist list. One
consequence would be for the US no longer to automatically veto any bid by the
DPRK to join and receive aid from bodies like the World Bank and the
International Monetary Fund (IMF); not that Pyongyang has seemed in a hurry to
Yet there is no recent evidence - though plenty until the 1980s - implicating
North Korea in international terrorism. Pyongyang's past crimes include
kidnapping Japanese citizens, which Kim Jong-il astonishingly admitted and
apologized for in 2002. But Pyongyang's failure to come fully clean on this has
poisoned Japan-DPRK ties. Shinzo Abe, Japan's newish prime minister, made his
name by taking a hard line on the abductions issue; and with his popularity
already waning, he is unlikely to back down now. So bilateral talks with the US
look set to be difficult, while those with Japan may quickly break down.
Five working groups
If two months is a tight timetable by past six-party and North Korean
standards, the new agreement also envisages a flurry of activity far sooner than
that. For one thing, unusually and encouragingly it sets a date for the next
full six-party meeting. This is set to convene on March 19, barely a month after
the last round finished.
Moreover, even before that no fewer than five separate working groups are due to
meet to discuss how to implement this large and varied agenda. Specifically,
their respective remits cover: denuclearization of the Korean peninsula;
normalization of DPRK-US ties; ditto with DPRK-Japan relations; economic and
energy cooperation; and establishing a Northeast Asia peace and security
mechanism. Though all five will be coordinated, "in principle, progress in
one WG shall not affect progress in other WGs."
If that sentence and sentiment seems contradictory, working groups as such are a
big step forward. Establishing these should both institutionalize the process
and permit details of implementation to be thrashed out, unlike the pattern
hitherto of intermittent, unwieldy plenary talks at vice-ministerial level
interspersed with long fallow periods of stasis. For the first time this holds
out the prospect of continuity and cumulative if slow progress.
A separate peace treaty
The new agreement also provides that separately from the six-party talks,
"the directly related parties will negotiate a permanent peace regime on
the Korean peninsula." This addresses North Korea's longstanding demand for
a treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War, hitherto subject only to an
armistice. The likely parties here are the direct combatants: the two Koreas,
the US and China. The point of having a separate forum is to exclude Russia and
especially Japan from this. It is not just that neither was officially a
combatant in 1950-53. Half a century of animosities remain, and neither Korea
would countenance the hated former colonial power having a formal role in such a
A bad deal?
All this is a remarkable turnaround - not to say a volte-face for George W
Bush. So while most comment has been cautiously favourable, there have been
predictable shrieks from Washington's hawks. John Bolton, until recently US
ambassador to the UN, and widely believed to be a Dick Cheney 'groupie,' was
quick to denounce the new agreement as a bad deal, which in effect rewards
nuclear proliferation and thus sends the wrong signal to Iran.
It is a measure of the neo-cons' waning star, amid the Iraq nightmare, that
pro-engagers in the Bush administration finally won the political leeway to
strike this deal at all. Yet it is a hostage to fortune for George W Bush.
Should Kim Jong-il fail to deliver, critics on right and left alike will be
quick to pounce. There is already the cynical suggestion that in his final two
years Bush is thinking of his legacy, and would like to leave office with a
foreign policy record not unremittingly negative. In that light, North Korea is
at least a separate kettle of fish from the Middle Eastern imbroglio - 'axis of
evil' or no.
Even for supporters of engaging North Korea, there is no denying that this
agreement, just like the 1994 AF, postpones or fudges some of the thornier
issue. Besides its silence on HEU as already mentioned, the main gap here is the
bomb. Thus despite having tested a nuclear device last October, Pyongyang is not
required at this stage even to declare and itemize, much less surrender, its
nuclear weapons or fissile material. We are a long way from strident demands for
CVID, now. At best this is a very preliminary step; the hope being that the
wider diplomatic process, working groups and so forth will create a new
atmosphere in which Kim Jong-il will "do a Libya" and come fully in
from the cold.
Yet it is far from clear whether the dear leader will ever give up a new nuclear
deterrent which he may view as his sole guarantee of respect - and of avoiding
the fate of Iraq. He may well conclude, to the contrary, that it was having and
testing the bomb which finally forced Bush to deal with him. Moreover Kim owes
Bush no favours, and may well string out the talks until a new, hopefully more
amenable Democrat president follows in 2008.
How now, Macao?
Another puzzle is that US financial sanctions against Banco Delta Asia (BDA)
in Macao, the issue which sank the previous round of six-party talks in
mid-December, are wholly unmentioned in the new agreement. The presumption is
that separate talks between the DPRK and the US Treasury Department have reached
a compromise whereby about half the US$24 million frozen in BDA accounts will be
deemed legitimate and released. Yet Pyongyang is as unlikely to give up on the
rest of the money as Washington is to drop its concerns, which go beyond
money-laundering to actual counterfeiting of US currency. So here again, the
road ahead may not prove smooth.
Undue speculation may be premature, since we shalll soon see if Pyongyang
delivers. On past form it can be expected to try to evade, redefine, prevaricate
and move the goalposts. Dividing its interlocutors is another favourite ploy;
although all six signed up to the new agreement, familiar fissures remain. Thus
there is much scepticism in Japan, which has been excused from paying for any
energy aid unless there is progress on abductions.
Who exactly will finance North Korea's HFO remains to be determined. In the
1994 AF, the US subcontracted this to a consortium, the Korean Peninsula Energy
Development Organization (KEDO). KEDO's other principals, South Korea and Japan,
bore the lion's share of expense, especially towards constructing two light
water reactors (LWRs) later abandoned unfinished. KEDO still exists, by a
thread, and North Korea intermittently goes on demanding fresh LWRs or the
equivalent in energy aid.
In Seoul, relief for the government of President Roh Moo-hyun that it can now
resume its 'sunshine' policy of engagement is tempered by a weary resignation as
to who will end up signing the cheques. Roh gave a hostage to fortune in happier
times, with an offer of 2 million kilowatts of electricity that was written into
the earlier six-party joint statement of September 2005. That could cost US$8
billion dollars over ten years. But Roh's term of office ends a year hence. If
as looks likely the conservative opposition Grand National Party (GNP) wins
upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, in December 2007 and January
2008 respectively, it will be less keen to deliver this and will demand more
reciprocity of Pyongyang more generally.
Inter-Korean talks to resume
For now, however, the six-party agreement eases the way for Seoul to resume
bilateral ties which had largely lapsed since last July's North Korean missile
test. It was promptly agreed to hold a 20th round of ministerial North-South
talks, the first since July 2006, in Pyongyang starting on February 27. South
Korea will be asked, and may well agree, to unblock much-needed food and other
aid frozen since last summer. Yet the Southern public has grown more sceptical,
weary and wary of a nuclear North. So as the elections approach, and with the
South's ruling Uri party starting to splinter, there may be fewer votes than
before in one-sided largesse towards the North.
A turning point?
In conclusion, watch this space! Any deal is better than no deal, but only
time will tell - and quite soon - whether the Pyongyang leopard has changed his
spots. We live in hope.