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Update No: 056 - (02/01/08)

North Korea: Teetering on the brink?
Given the changeable political weather on the peninsula, a year of unprecedented progress – at least since the mid-1990s – in North Korea’s denuclearization could perhaps not have been expected to continue to run entirely smoothly. As 2007 drew to a close, it looked increasingly as if neither of the year-end deadlines to which Pyongyang had earlier agreed in the Six Party Talks (6PT) – to disable its Yongbyon reactor and site, and to declare in full all its nuclear arsenal and activities – would in fact be met.

The 6PT has survived hiccups before, notably a three-month delay last summer in shutting down Yongbyon while the tangled tale of Banco Delta Asia (BDA) was resolved and North Korea got its money back, hot or not. Any delay this time may be similarly tolerable, given the strong desire by four of the other five parties – a lukewarm Japan always excepted, but crucially now including the US – to cut a deal with Kim Jong-il. But not at any price. The acid test will be if the dear leader is genuinely committed to abandoning nuclear weapons. On that, as a new year approaches, the jury is still out.

Yongbyon goes smoothly
The overrun in disabling Yongbyon is no problem, as this is for technical reasons: it has simply proved unfeasible to safely remove all the fuel rods from the site in time. This may now take until March, but is proceeding apace under US supervision with full cooperation from the DPRK. Sung Kim, the State Department official in charge of this, crossed into North Korea from the South via Panmunjom on December 19 to check on progress. 

He was preceded a fortnight earlier by his boss Christopher Hill, who as assistant secretary of state for East Asia heads the US delegation to the 6PT – and whose vigorous diplomacy over the past year has often seemed to be driving or even making policy on North Korea, rather than simply following orders from Washington. This was Hill’s second visit to Pyongyang this year (or indeed ever), the first having been in June. Though as always he was relentlessly upbeat with the press afterwards, it is clear that there are now problems.

6PT fail to convene
Indeed, had all gone to plan a further full-dress 6PT meeting had been expected in Beijing on December 4-6, when in the event Hill was in Pyongyang. While the precise state of play is not public, any or all of several familiar knots may be holding up progress. One is highly enriched uranium (HEU), the issue which caused the second North Korean nuclear crisis back in 2002. Although the US now sounds less sure how far the DPRK had got with this suspected second covert nuclear programme, the evidence it has – mainly purchases from the rogue nuclear network formerly run by Pakistan’s Dr A Q Khan – is such that it insists that North Korea has some explaining to do. The usual blanket bland denials will not cut it.

The same applies to a newer concern: suspected DPRK nuclear cooperation with Syria. The official silence in Washington and Jerusalem about the mystery facility in eastern Syria that Israel destroyed in September has only fuelled speculation, although both Pyongyang and Damascus deny everything. (They are known to cooperate on missiles.) Here again, North Korea has been told – by Henry Kissinger among others, no less – that it must realize that any hint of nuclear proliferation to the Middle East is a double red line for the US. While bygones may be forgiven, it is thus essential for the DPRK to both come completely clean and promise not to do it again, here or anywhere else. Neither fully transparent disclosure nor credible binding pledges of future good behaviour are exactly Pyongyang’s style.

Even more sensitive than either of these is the $64,000 question: how many nuclear devices and how much fissile materiel does North Korea possess? Even to pose the question is to realize how unprecedented, and frankly implausible, is the idea of it ever being answered truthfully and in full. The encouraging new transparency over Yongbyon is because that site was expendable: outmoded and decrepit, it had served its purpose. The current delay, by contrast, suggests Pyongyang is resisting full disclosure elsewhere, as one would expect.

Bush writes
Another sign that all is not well is an unprecedented letter from George W Bush to Kim Jong-il, which Hill delivered. Nominally addressed to all parties in the 6PT, emphasizing the importance of timely implementation, this would be redundant if the process was going smoothly. Washington was not best pleased when Pyongyang not only published the letter, but insouciantly delivered an oral reply via its UN mission in New York. The gist was: you do your side and we’ll do ours.

This hints at a further obstacle. What North Korea mainly wants from the US at this point is to be taken off the State Department’s list of countries suspected of sponsoring terrorism. Japan opposes this, as long as it fails to receive a full and credible account of the fate of at least 17 of its citizens kidnapped by the DPRK in the 1970s and 1980s. While the US will not let this single issue become a dealbreaker with Pyongyang (to Tokyo’s chagrin), neither is it ready simply to delist North Korea unless further performance criteria are met.

China chivvies
Also visiting Pyongyang was China’s deputy foreign minister Wu Dawei, who as Beijing’s chief delegate to the 6PT chairs the talks. Wu arrived on December 17, presumably to add China’s voice in urging Kim Jong-il to implement his commitments fully and promptly.

More progress with South
The 6PT may have hit a bump, but inter-Korean relations keep forging ahead. December 11 saw the start of regular daily crossborder rail freight service, though there is less to this than meets the eye. The train runs a mere 10 miles, from just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to just north of it. Meant to serve the Kaesong industrial zone where small Southern firms employ Northern workers to make export goods, in fact it stops short since the zone’s station, oddly, has no loading facilities. Moreover, apart from launch day the train has been running empty. Its capacity clearly exceeds Kaesong’s current needs; or the zone’s SMEs may prefer to stick with the lorries they have used hitherto.

Yet if so far this is more symbol than substance, the new train is not a Potemkin pretence. For Seoul it is a foot in the door. The real prize is to start rebuilding the North’s decrepit infrastructure, and with any luck that will start next year. The encouraging new plethora of North-South committees and sub-committees – hardly a day now passes without a meeting of some kind, from mining to public health: too much to record in full here, unfortunately – includes forthcoming talks on upgrading the road to Pyongyang and the railway all the way to Sinuiju on the Chinese border, due in February and January respectively. Both tasks will be lengthy and costly, but as a Korean proverb says, sijaki banida: the first step is half the journey. Slowly but surely, not only the reunification of the peninsula’s transport arteries but also the reintegration of a Northeast Asian regional infrastructure are now under way.

Not all is plain sailing. At military talks in mid-December, plans for a joint fishing zone in the West (Yellow) Sea, agreed at October’s inter-Korean summit, again foundered – as in late November’s defence ministers’ talks in Pyongyang – amid quarrels over where to put this. North Korea wants it all to lie south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto post-Korean War marine border which the DPRK has never officially recognized. That is not acceptable to the South, which sees this as compromising its territory and sovereignty. 

The North’s refusal to compromise here may reflect power struggles in Pyongyang, with the Korean People’s Army (KPA) fighting a rearguard action after being forced to yield elsewhere; not least at Kaesong, where it long resisted use of the relinked railways and can hardly be pleased to see its front line gradually becoming a front door. Encouragingly, the NLL row did not prevent progress elsewhere. The two sides agreed security guarantees for other joint ventures, including longer hours for border crossing and use of the Internet and wireless telephony in the Kaesong and Kumgang zones – only by South Koreans, however.

Sunset for sunshine?
Admittedly this burst of recent inter-Korean activity is in part driven by politics. The timing of the new rail service, starting just a week before South Korea’s presidential election, was manifestly intended to influence its outcome by boosting the centre-left forces which had held power in Seoul for a decade. Chung Dong-young, candidate of the pro-government United New Democratic Party (UNDP), is an ex-unification minister who had met Kim Jong-il and is strongly committed to the ‘sunshine’ policy of engaging North Korea.

Nonetheless, as widely predicted, Chung lost resoundingly with a mere 26% of the vote as against the 49% gained by the victor: Lee Myung-bak, a former Hyundai CEO and mayor of Seoul, nicknamed ‘bulldozer’ for his can-do image. Lee’s Grand National Party (GNP) is the old conservative ruling party, dominant until 1997, whose origins go back to the era of past military dictators. As such it has often been excoriated by DPRK media in the past as a nest of reactionary pro-US traitors.

Yet Lee is a business-minded pragmatist, and the GNP earlier this year formally abandoned its old Cold War stance to join the engagement bandwagon – while insisting this should be a two-way street with more Northern reciprocity than hitherto. Lee takes office on February 25, and has said he will review all recent inter-Korean projects agreed by his predecessor, the outgoing president Roh Moo-hyun. Yet most of these are practical business projects of mutual benefit, which Lee has no reason to object to.

But will Pyongyang object to him? One hopeful sign is that recently Northern media have directed their fire, and their inimitable repertoire of insults, towards another Lee. Lee Hoi-chang had lost the last two elections in 1997 and 2002 for the GNP. This time he ran as an independent conservative, attacking his namesake as wet: too middle of the road, soft on North Korea, and corrupt. (Lee MB does indeed face an investigation into his past business dealings, which might yet cause him problems before or after he takes office.)

On December 9 the North’s Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that the DPRK National Reunification Institute “released an indictment on branding traitor Ri Hoe Chang [the Northern spelling of Lee HC] as a fascist man-killer, separatist and confrontational maniac, kingpin of irregularities and corruption and human scum.” Lee HC polled 15% of the presidential vote; he is expected to stay on the scene by founding a new hard-right party to contest upcoming separate parliamentary elections on April 9. While the risk of splitting the conservative vote will add to Lee MB’s difficulties at home, a silver lining is that it may help make him more acceptable to the North by pushing him towards the middle ground. 

But this may be a tricky balancing act. Lee Myung-bak has stressed that North Korea must give up its nuclear weapons, and is pledged to restore closer ties with the US which had frayed under Roh; although it helps that Bush has belatedly come round to an engagement stance towards Pyongyang. In a comment after his election, Lee said he will not hesitate to criticize the North when necessary: “I believe a friendly admonition will not harm relations, but may serve to bring us together.” Maybe. Earlier he had said he will not shy away from the North’s human rights issue. But he has also spoken of setting up five more free trade zones in the North, whose national income per head he boasts he can raise to $3,000 (it is less than $1,000 now) if Pyongyang cooperates. 

At this writing the North had yet to make any comment on Lee since his election. On past form it may well be standoffish at first, but the canny Kim Jong-il would be unwise to look what remains a gift-horse in the mouth for too long. Yet with unpredictability as ever a key weapon in the dear leader’s repertoire, there is no real knowing what 2008 will bring: on this front, or for North Korea in general. The hope, as ever, is that Kim Jong-il will at last decide to emulate Libya and come in from the cold, definitively giving up nuclear and other wepons of mass destruction. The fear is that this will prove a step too far for him. He turns 66 on February 16, with no successor in place and a hungry people. The clock is ticking.

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