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Update No: 054 - (29/10/07)

North Korea: Two landmark agreements
Early October is shaping up as a season for landmark events in North Korea. A year ago, Kim Jong-il's nuclear test on 9 October 2006, even if not a complete success, was a rude wake-up call; not least, in jolting the Bush administration to embrace serious engagement.

A year later, early October produced not one but two important agreements - on successive days. The nuclear Six Party Talks (6PT) in fact met in Beijing on 27-30 September, but had to refer the deal they had reached, back to all six capitals for approval. Thus the accord was not published until 3 October; coincidentally, in the middle of the South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun's rare summit with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. That itself produced an excitingly practical 8-point agreement a day later on 4 October, before Roh drove home.

Tight timetable
Like the first breakthrough 6PT agreement reached in February, the new accord lays down a detailed timetable for concrete actions. North Korea has agreed to disable, and eventually give up, all its nuclear activities. Three named facilities at its Yongbyon site - a reactor, reprocessing plant, and fuel rod factory - are to be disabled by 31 December. The US will lead and fund this process, and was to send a expert group to begin preparations within two weeks - as indeed it duly did, receiving full cooperation from Pyongyang.

The DPRK further committed "to provide a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programmes", again by the year-end. It also "reaffirmed its commitment not to transfer nuclear materials, technology, or know-how." In return for both these "two Ds" - disablement and declaration - it will receive a million tons of heavy fuel oil (HFO) or equivalent, less 100,000 tons already sent, as provided under the February accord.

Clauses on improving ties with the US and Japan are vaguer. Despite earlier Pyongyang claims that Washington had agreed to remove it from the State Department's list of nations sponsoring terrorism, the new accord merely recommits to "moving towards" this and to eventual full diplomatic relations, with actual progress dependant on North Korea's actions.

Ominous obstacles
On paper this is an excellent agreement, maintaining momentum towards de-nuclearization. In practice, however, there may be several obstacles. On past form, the timetable could slip - as earlier this year, when the Banco Delta Asia (BDA) issue delayed Yongbyon's closure by three months. North Korea may raise extraneous issues, or prevaricate by disagreeing as to what exactly should constitute disablement: a highly technical matter, with plenty of scope for argument.

Or even if the Yongbyon site - which the DPRK may have decided to sacrifice, as having fulfilled its purpose - is disabled on schedule, it is unclear whether Pyongyang will fully declare a suspected separate covert programme based on highly enriched uranium (HEU). The US pressed on that in the past, causing the breach, which led to Yongbyon's reopening in late 2002, and a second nuclear crisis. Now Washington seems unsure how far any HEU activity had in fact progressed. Perhaps this can be finessed, but some mention at least of civilian HEU will surely be required.

Even less certain is whether the DPRK's declaration will extend to plutonium stocks, let alone actual nuclear weapons. Neither of these are specified as such in the new agreement. While Washington wants to proceed in stages so as to build confidence, a nuclear accord 'sans' weapons would be Hamlet without the prince. Eventually, sooner or later, Kim Jong-il must be made to put his weapons on the table. That will be the moment of truth.

Syrian spoiler?
More immediately, North Korea's commitment to nuclear non-proliferation, and potentially the entire new 6PT agreement, may be thrown into question by whatever the DPRK might have been up to with Syria. As discussed in last month's Update, a mystery building in Syria's eastern desert, bombed by Israel on 6 September, is rumoured to have involved nuclear cooperation with Pyongyang. That could be a deal-breaker, and is acutely embarrassing for the Bush administration, which faces growing criticism from right-wing Republicans who see it as now too eager to deal with Kim Jong-il. At a minimum, a furious US will insist to Pyongyang that whatever it was doing with Damascus is now dead, and that no resumption or repetition elsewhere will be tolerated. There may yet be further revelations to come.

Then there is the diplomatic front, and a delicate triangular dance. While the US is ready to take North Korea off its terrorism list, to do so would irk Japan; since Tokyo prioritizes above all the issue of Japanese abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s. Kim Jong-il has admitted and apologized for this, and repatriated five survivors; but Japan continues to press for a full account. The new premier, Yasuo Fukuda, has signalled that he will take a less hawkish line than his predecessor Shinzo Abe, but he has to be cautious in view of public opinion. Tokyo recently renewed sanctions against North Korea, and has reiterated that it will not give HFO or other aid while the abduction issue remains unsettled.

A second summit
None of the above unduly bothered an ebullient Roh Moo-hyun, who on 2 October drove to Pyongyang for what was only the second ever inter-Korean summit since the peninsula was partitioned in 1945. His predecessor Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel peace prize for the first, in June 2000, even though it later transpired that a secret $500 million was sent by Seoul to Pyongyang as a sweetener just before the summit.

Expectations were low for this meeting, on several counts. For a start, it was asymmetrical: Kim Jong-il was supposed to vist Seoul after 2000, but has never done so. Moreover Roh is a lame duck whose term ends next February. The conservative opposition Grand National Party (GNP) is far ahead in opinion polls, so the summit looked like a blatant ploy to boost the beleaguered centre-left ruling camp, now called the United New Democratic Party (UNDP), in the presidential elections due on 19 December. 

Besides, Roh is seen as naïve and mercurial, prompting worries that the wily Kim Jong-il would outwit him. Talk in Seoul of a mini-Marshall plan worth up to $20 billion in aid raised fears that Roh might prove too generous: running ahead of the 6PT nuclear process, which by contrast is premised on strict reciprocity and conditionality.

Roh did well
In the event such concerns proved groundless. Roh behaved prudently, politely rebuffing an unexpected invitation from Kim to "loosen his belt" and stay an extra day. In an exchange caught on camera, Roh said he must seek advice from his protocol and security chiefs - to which Kim, baffled or taunting, shot back: "So the president can't just decide?"

Kim Dae-jung had flown, but Roh Moo-hyun elected to drive to Pyongyang. In an image no less poignant for being carefully staged, he and his wife got out and walked across the actual border, the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). Arrived in Pyongyang, he was met by an unsmiling Kim Jong-il: the dour leader, as Reuters quipped. By next day his host had lightened up, but connoisseurs of protocol noted the contrast a fortnight later when Kim and half the DPRK government lined up at Pyongyang's Sunan airport on 16 October to greet the Vietnamese communist party's general secretary, Nong Duc Manh. As the official KCNA newsagency spelled out, Kim "warmly hugged" his guest - the first CPV GS to come visiting in half a century. The last one, back in 1957, was Ho Chi Minh.

One of the folksy Roh Moo-hyun's strengths is not to be too bothered by such niceties. A dutiful guest, he saw the sights, including the inevitable Arirang mass display. On his final day he visited the port city of Nampo, taking in both its massive lock barrage and the tiny Pyonghwa car assembly plant run by the Unification Church ('Moonies'). 

En route home, he called in at the Kaesong industrial park just north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), where some 20 small Southern firms employ 11,000 Northern workers to turn out (so far) a cumulative $200 million worth of export goods. Kim Jong-il complained at Kaesong's slow progress, which is a bit rich since most obstacles come from his side - like still not allowing either mobile phones or the Internet in the zone.

Let business begin
The 8-point agreement signed by Kim and Roh on 4 October was encouraging in both its range and specificity. It had two main themes: security, and economic cooperation. Both come together in plans to create a 'special zone for peace and cooperation' based on the port city of Haeju in the southwestern DPRK. This will include a common fishery zone in the West (Yellow) Sea, to avoid fatal naval clashes such as occurred in 1999 and 2002. It will also facilitate other cooperation in border areas, such as dredging sand from the Han river estuary for construction. While this may seem a creative solution to a festering border issue - North Korea refuses to recognize the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto sea border since 1953 - Southern conservatives accuse Roh of compromising on sovereignty.

Roh's 300-strong entourage included the heads of major companies like Hyundai Motor, Samsung Electronics, LG and Posco - none of whom have so far shown any enthusiasm to invest in North Korea, unlike Taiwanese firms in China. Business was a major focus of the summit. In general, both sides pledged to "encourage investment for economic cooperation, bolster infrastructure and develop natural resources." The existing committee on economic cooperation will be upgraded to a joint commission, at the level of deputy prime ministers, and the Kaesong zone will be expanded into a second phase as soon as possible.

Trains, at last 
Relatedly, cross-border freight train service to Kaesong will commence. That is a start: having spent over $500 million reconnecting two crossborder railways, South Korea has chafed for two years at the North's perverse refusal to let them be used.

More excitingly and further afield, both sides will develop the highway up to Pyongyang (along which Roh travelled), and the railway onwards to Sinuiju on the border with China, "for joint use." Joint supporters' teams will travel by rail to the 2008 Beijing Olympics via the Seoul-Sinuiju railway: the first to make that trip in over half a century. They may yet cheer for a united Korean team, something still under discussion. This raises the prospect of rebuilding not just the peninsula's logistics but a wider regional transport infrastructure in northeast Asia, with potential onward links to China, Russia and beyond.

Existing cooperation in agriculture, health, medicine and the environment will be expanded. In a new development, joint ship-building complexes will be built at Nampo (the port for Pyongyang) and Anbyon on North Korea's west and east coasts respectively. This may help South Korea, which has seven of the world's top ten shipbuilders, beat off the challenge of growing Chinese competition.

To implement all this, both sides' premiers will meet in Seoul in November. If it becomes regular, this will upgrade the existing cabinet-level meetings, of which there have been 21 since 2000. It was further agreed that North-South summits should be "frequent" - in the South's version: the North's merely said "from time to time" - and that parliamentary and other political exchanges should be instituted. Family reunions will be expanded, though predictably nothing was said about the thousands of Southern abductees held in the North, some dating back to the 1950s. Roh later said he had tried to raise human rights issues with Kim Jong-il, but got no joy. 

A peace regime?
Besides business, military-related issues were addressed on a number of levels. The two Koreas' defence ministers will meet in Pyongyang in November, for only the second time ever, to discuss confidence-building in general and the Haeju zone in particular.

More broadly, both sides committed to seek to "terminate the existing armistice regime and to build a permanent peace regime." To that end, a "three- or four-party summit of directly related sides" should be held on the peninsula." That numerical ambiguity is distinctly odd. This must involve the US and China, as parties to the 1953 Armistice - which South Korea did not sign, as the ROK's then president Syngman Rhee wanted to fight on. Pyongyang has made propaganda play of this in the past, but it is unthinkable that Seoul would not be a party to any final peace settlement now. In any case all this is premature, as the US would not consider discussing a peace treaty without further solid progress on denuclearization.

Proof of the pudding
As with the latest 6PT accord, so with the summit, everything hinges on implementation. If North Korea so chooses, it can delay or repudiate any of the above. Hence November's two meetings, of premiers and defence ministers, will be key touchstones: whether they happen, and whether they make further concrete progress. 

Public and private institutes in Seoul have been busy trying to cost the various projects mentioned at the summit. Their numbers vary wildly. For now it is better to wait and see what actually transpires - especially since a GNP election victory might lead to at least a temporary rocky patch in inter-Korean ties, for the North excoriates that party as traitors. 

Meanwhile all eyes will be on Pyongyang as a new year dawns, to see if Kim Jong-il really does disable Yongbyon and declare his other nuclear assets. If he does, then 2008 could be a breakthrough year for peace on the peninsula.

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