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Update No: 064 - (29/08/08)

No tit for tat?
In a familiar stop-go pattern, recent progress over the nuclear issue in June and July has now suffered a reverse. On August 26 North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) revealed that work on disablement of its main nuclear site at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, had halted on August 14, almost a fortnight earlier. (The reason for the delay in announcing this is unclear; perhaps negotiations with the US were ongoing, or maybe there was a vague intention to show displeasure at the Chinese president Hu Jintao’s visit to South Korea on August 25-26.) Pyongyang further warned that it may even reopen Yongbyon – shut down for over a year now, with disablement proceeding since last autumn – “as strongly requested by its relevant institutions”: pre sumably the Korean People’s Army (KPA).

North Korea blamed its action on the US failure to remove it, as promised, from the State Department’s list of nations regarded as sponsoring terrorism. Delisting would make it eligible to join global financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Washington rejected this charge: it accused the DPRK of violating agreements reached at the Six Party Talks (6PT) with what it called “a step backward … in violation of the principle of action-for-action”. Japan, South Korea and Russia also expressed concern, while China more blandly called on all parties to fulfil their commitments.

We foresaw this possibility in last month’s Update. If analysts can see a (hopefully small and only temporary) train wreck coming, one does wonder why policy makers and practitioners are sometimes oddly blind to the consequences of their actions.

Action for action
As the US response states, echoing a phrase more normally used by North Korea, the whole long-drawn out 6PT process – now entering its sixth year: this sextet first met in August 2003, as NewNations reported at the time – is based on “the principle of action-for-action”. Given that, it is of course crucial that all concerned are wholly clear, and in agreement, in fine-tuning this reciprocity. If A gives X, then what is the precise Y that B must do in return?

Unusually, we deem it worth appending the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)’s full statement, below. In general, it is interesting to see how North Koreans reason when for once they are not, as so often, in bellicose bluster mode. This time the tone is more aggrieved; and dare one say, they might even have a point. 

Restarting Yongbyon is a bluff
One should also add the immediate reassurance that talk of actually reopening Yongbyon is bluff. The whole point of the three stage sequence – closure, disablement, dismantlement – laid down in the 6PT accord is to ensure no repetition of the fateful events of late 2002 and early 2003. Then, an earlier devastating blunder by the Bush administration – choosing, for reasons which remain obscure, to pick a quarrel with Pyongyang over a suspected second nuclear programme based on highly enriched uranium (HEU), which even if real was many years away from being operational – prompted Kim Jong-il to kick out the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s inspectors and restart Yongbyon, sealed since 1995 under the earlier Clinton-era US-DPRK Agreed Framework (AF). That gave North Korea extra plutonium, making possible its nuclear test in October 2006.

Whereas now, disablement at Yongbyon – symbolized by the demolition of its main cooling tower on June 27, a day after it handed in (six months late) the long-awaited declaration of its nuclear activities – has gone too far to make its reopening a realistic possibility. The US assistant secretary of state and chief negotiator with North Korea, Christopher Hill, told the Senate armed services committee on July 31 as follows:

“Since November 2007, a rotating team of U.S. experts has been on the ground overseeing disablement of the three core nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, and North Korea is no
longer able to produce weapons-grade plutonium at Yongbyon. As of today, the DPRK has completed eight out of 11 agreed disablement tasks, and has discharged more than half of the 8,000 spent fuel rods from the 5-MW(e) reactor. Upon completion of all 11 steps, the DPRK would have to expend significant effort, and time -- upwards of 12 months -- to reconstitute all of the disabled facilities. Our experts continue to report good cooperation with DPRK experts at the site.” armed-services.senate.gov 

So what has gone wrong now? Removal from the US terrorist list is a longstanding DPRK demand. North Korea was certainly guilty of state terrorism in the past; as notoriously in the October 1983 bomb in Rangoon. This killed 21 people, including three South Korean cabinet ministers; though not its intended target, Seoul’s then military dictator Chun Doo-hwan. 

Japan jibs
Japan, for one, would and does argue that North Korea should remain on the list until Tokyo receives a full and credible account of past abductions of its citizens by DPRK agents. In a rare sign of progress on this vexed issue, in June Pyongyang agreed to reopen its enquiries; but there has been no visible progress since. Yet long before that, Washington had clearly signalled, and Tokyo had reluctantly accepted, that the US would not let this one issue block a nuclear deal; not even for its key ally in the east Asian region.

On June 26, hours after Pyongyang submitted its nuclear declaration, President George W Bush gave the requisite 45 days’ notice to Congress of taking North Korea off the terrorist list. There could hardly be a clearer case of tit for tat. Accordingly, the expectation was that in 45 days, on August 11, North Korea would be duly delisted.

Yet almost immediately the US attached a rider. Both before and after the latest 6PT round, held in Beijing on July 10-12, Washington let it be known that actual delisting would depend on Pyongyang’s agreeing a protocol for verification of its progress in denuclearisation. As discussed in last month’s Update, verification was a major theme of the latest 6PT. It goes without saying that this is a key area, which was always going to be difficult. For a regime as secretive as North Korea – reluctant even to let the UN monitor food aid distribution with its usual thoroughness – the idea of random snap inspections of military installations must seem intolerably intrusive, especially to the KPA. The MFA statement makes this clear.

To be sure, this is a nettle that will have to be grasped. The question is when. With so much else of importance in this curiously Enron-like diplomacy either placed ‘off balance sheet’ (HEU, and proliferation to Syria) or postponed (declaring actual nuclear warheads and their locations), it is far from clear why the US should now be in such a rush to tack verification onto the end of Phase 2 (disablement), rather than prioritising it in Phase 3 (dismantlement).

Since North Korea’s nuclear declaration remains secret, and the 6PT hinge so much – more than is healthy, arguably – on the personal bond which Chris Hill has painstakingly forged with his DPRK counterpart, vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan, the rest of us have no real way of knowing who promised what to whom, and what the informal understandings are. One can only surmise that the US side warned North Korea that they wanted a verification protocol agreed immediately. But why now? And was it not entirely predictable that North Korea would respond as it now has, in effect saying: hold on, you are running ahead, that wasn’t part of this stage of the agreement?

Of course, Kim Jong-il has every incentive to temporize: waiting for (he hopes) Obama, albeit with no more guarantee – either of that happening, or of getting a better deal if it does – than four years ago when he similarly pinned his hopes on a Democrat presidency under John Kerry. North Korea will always seek any excuse to prevaricate and procrastinate. The wonder is that the US should hand them one. It is as if Washington has learnt nothing from the Banco Delta Asia (BDA) debacle, which whether by accident or design delayed the 6PT for some 18 months during 2005-07 before the US was forced into a humiliating climbdown: returning US$25 million to Pyongyang, some of which was almost certainly ill-gotten.

Similarly, at the afore-cited Senate committee meeting on July 31, it was surprising to hear Chris Hill describe North Korea’s human rights situation as “abysmal” and “unacceptable”, and say that such concerns will be “riveted” into future talks on diplomatic normalisation. While his description is wholly correct, the US like all North Korea’s interlocutors has to prioritize. Many evils that can be laid at Kim Jong-il’s door; but if the idea is to get him to open it, then laying them all at once – or hurling them randomly – is not the way to go.

What happens next is not clear. This latest row might blow over, and be cleared up. Or it could escalate, if say North Korea were to expel the team of US technicians supervising disablement at Yongbyon, who are currently cooling their heels. A possible precedent is Pyongyang’s expulsion of some (but by no means all) South Koreans from its Mount Kumgang tourist resort in recent weeks; on the ground that they too are now surplus to requirements, since Seoul suspended tourism after the KPA killed a middle-aged Southern woman on July 11. For this and other reasons, inter-Korean relation s remain frozen and bad-tempered. Sunshine is definitely in eclipse; some fear the sun may have definitively set.

Hunger noodle
Meanwhile ordinary North Koreans scrape by as best they can. On August 23 the BBC and other global media cited Choson Sinbo, the daily paper of pro-North ethnic Koreans living in Japan, as reporting that Pyongyang has developed a new kind of noodle which delays pangs of hunger. Made of corn and soybeans, the new noodle has twice as much protein and five times as much fat as ordinary noodles. Despite the half a million tons of US food aid now being delivered – absolutely unconnected to nuclear compliance, according to Washington – no end is in sight for North Korea’s gaunt misery. 

On September 8 North Korea celebrates the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the DPRK in 1948. One recalls the sharp placard seen 20 years ago in a march in Mos cow in November 1987, using Gorbachev’s glasnost to mock the system: “70 Years on the Road to Nowhere.” While no North Korean durst utter such a sentiment, many must now be thinking it.

Appendix
Foreign Ministry's Spokesman on DPRK's Decision to Suspend Activities to Disable Nuclear Facilities 

[Emphases in original, as kindly sent by Mr Ri Ungchol of the DPRK Embassy in London. Also on KCNA, sans emphases, at http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2008/200808/news08/27.htm#1 ]

A spokesman for the DPRK Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Tuesday [August 26] in connection with the stumbling block laid by the United States in the way of settling the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula by refusing to implement the October 3 agreement of the six-party talks. 

The statement said: 
Under the October 3 agreement stipulating the practical measures to be taken at the second phase for the implementation of the September 19 joint statement on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula the DPRK was committed to presenting a nuclear declaration and the U.S. was also committed to writing the DPRK off the list of the "state sponsors of terrorism." 

The DPRK has honored its commitment by presenting t he nuclear declaration on June 26. But the U.S. failed to delist the DPRK as a "state sponsor of terrorism" within the fixed date for the mere "reason" that a protocol on the verification of the nuclear declaration has not yet been agreed upon. This was an outright violation of the agreement. 

No agreements reached among the six parties or between the DPRK and the U.S. contain an article which stipulates the verification of the nuclear declaration of the DPRK as conditionality for delisting it as a "state sponsor of terrorism." 

As far as the verification is concerned, it is a commitment to be fulfilled by the six parties at the final phase of the denuclearization of the whole Korean Peninsula according to the September 19 joint statement. 

It should be verified that there are no U.S. nuclear weapons in and around south Korea and that there has been neither new shipment nor passage of those weapons. This verification and the verification of the DPRK's fulfillment of its commitments should be done at the same time. This is the principle of "action for action".

All that was agreed upon at the present phase was to set up verification and monitoring mechanisms within the framework of the six parties. 

The U.S., however, raised all of a sudden an issue of applying an "international standard" to the verification of the nuclear declaration, abusing this agreed point. It pressurized the DPRK to accept such inspec tion as scouring any place of the DPRK as it pleases to collect samples and measure them. 

The "international standard" touted by the U.S. is nothing but "special inspection" which the IAEA called for in the 1990s to infringe upon the sovereignty of the DPRK and caused it to pull out of the NPT in the end. 

The U.S. is gravely mistaken if it thinks it can make a house search in the DPRK as it pleases just as it did in Iraq. 

The U.S. insistence on the unilateral inspection of the DPRK is a brigandish demand for unilaterally disarming the DPRK, the other belligerent party, by discarding its commitment to the denuclearization of the whole Korean Peninsula the core of which is to remove the U.S. nuclear threat according to the September 19 joint statement. 

The DPRK's intention to denuclearize the peninsula is to remove the nuclear threat from the Korean nation, not to have a bargaining over the DPRK's nuclear deterrent. 

For whom is the six-way structure necessary if the six-party talks are reduced to a platform for a big country to trifle with a small country as it does at present? 

This time the U.S. postponed the process of delisting the DPRK as a "state sponsor of terrorism" under the pretext of verification even after officially declaring internally and externally that the DPRK is not a "state sponsor of terrorism". This is little short of admitting that the list is not related to terrorism in actuality. 

The DPRK does not care whether it continues remaining on the list of "those countries which are disobedient to the U.S." 

The U.S. is now keen to gravely encroach upon the sovereignty of the DPRK. 

Now that the U.S. breached the agreed points, the DPRK is compelled to take the following countermeasures on the principle of "action for action":

First, the DPRK decided to immediately suspend the disablement of its nuclear facilities that had been underway according to the October 3 agreement.

This step took effect on August 14 and the parties concerned have already been notified of this. 

Second, the DPRK will consider soon a step to restore the nuclear facilities in Nyongbyon to their original state as strongly requested by its relevant institutions. 

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