Books on North Korea
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.