Thursday, January 10, 2008

Surprise! No candor from North Korea!

LONDON - The failure of North Korea to meet the "deadline" for "fessing up" to everything in its nuclear inventory should have come as no shock to anyone.

The only surprise is that US diplomats and spokespeople persisted in saying North Korean disablement of its nuclear program was "on track" and all that was needed to complete this "phase" of the deal was for the North to produce that list.

Now the all-patient US State Department is saying all is fine, "They should not sacrifice completeness and accuracy for speed," said nuclear envoy Christopher Hill as he prepared for nother round of talks about getting North Korea to live up to its word.

Giving Hill the benefit of the doubt, some analysts ask if he believes all those optimistic statements and carefully phrased "warnings" that he drops while commuting between Washington and Beijing with stops in Seoul and Tokyo. Or might secret diplomatic communications, when revealed a few years or decades hence, prove he knew the whole show was a charade but had to make a pretense of doing his best to cool down a crisis on the Korean Peninsula while US forces were pinned down in a real shooting war in Iraq and Afghanistan?

In any event, as the New Year's witching hour predictably slipped by, a familiar pattern of wait-and-see, talking about talks, demands and counter-demands quickly fell into place. There was China saying delay was expected, the State Department cautiously optimistic, North Korea accusing the US of going back on its promises and South Korea yearning for more six-party talks even before North Korea came up with the list.

The most discordant note, however, may have been an expression of skepticism by a White House talking head about whether North Korea would ever provide all the details promised in the six-party nuclear agreement last February 13 and reaffirmed on October 3 even as North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il was hosting South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun in Pyongyang. The admission, "We are skeptical," by spokeswoman Dana Perino evoked memories of her boss, President George W Bush, at the outset of his presidency in March 2001 expressing "skepticism" about verifying any deal with North Korea.

It was that remark, made by Bush as he sat in the White House beside South Korea's president Kim Dae-jung, author of the Sunshine policy, after their first meeting that touched off a long period of strain in US-South Korean relations relieved only by the US eventually going along with reconciliation.

The debate over North Korea reached crisis proportions with the breakdown of the 1994 Geneva framework agreement after North Korea in October 2002 supposedly acknowledged the existence of a program for developing nuclear warheads with highly enriched uranium (HEU). Incredibly, after all the negotiations, deals, high hopes and misleading news reporting, HEU remains the same issue as it was then.

"I thought Chris Hill had persuaded himself of a face-saving way out," said Mark Fitzpatrick, senior research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, but North Korea is showing no signs of yielding to such a simple formula for compromise.

The understanding, as spread by Hill, was that North Korea would acknowledge having acquired 19 or so centrifuges, and the plans to go with them, from Pakistan's rogue physicist Abdul Qadeer Khan and then turn them over in a display of good faith.

As negotiators on all sides should have known, however, North Korea is no closer now to acknowledging anything to do with HEU than it was more than five years ago. North Korean negotiators in the past few weeks have said they have no HEU program.

Beside the HEU issue, the disablement of the nuclear complex at Yongbyon, where North Korean technicians are believed to have reprocessed enough plutonium for anywhere from six to a dozen warheads, is a secondary issue. The US does not appear concerned by North Korea's delaying disablement until February for reasons that American technicians on the scene say are unavoidable.

Fitzpatrick, former deputy assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation, notes that North Korea has yet to agree to give up the plutonium it has already produced. "They've agreed to do one phase and then talk about the next phase," he said. "Longer term, there are so many things that are waiting to be done."

The Yongbyon facilities, modeled on outdated Soviet plans, with Soviet technology, were ready for disablement - and had already served their primary purpose of frightening the US into considering serious concessions after the explosion by the North of a small nuclear warhead on October 9, 2006.

Even if North Korea were to reach the stage of admitting, "OK, we've got a uranium program," said Fitzpatrick, "they haven't agreed to disable it." North Korean recalcitrance on HEU means the US and others may well have to accept the fact that North Korea will go on playing the nuclear card, challenging the US while making few if any serious concessions. If the US wants to avoid another nuclear crisis, the only option may be to go on with talks that go nowhere, hoping to avoid a breakdown of the process while holding on to the rewards that North Korea demands as "action for action", including removal from the State Department's list of terrorist states and a bonanza of ever-more aid.

The wild card in the whole process, however, may be North Korea's assessment of the likely attitude of South Korea's president-elect Lee Myung-bak.

An incredible irony is that, while the Bush administration reversed course on North Korea and turned toward moderation, South Korean voters have become ever more dubious about what all the talking is accomplishing. Lee, a conservative whose primary focus is on the economy, has been using much the same language as American conservatives in wanting to know all North Korea's been up to, including its HEU program, and demanding "verification" of compliance with the six-party agreements.

North Korea so far has refrained from comment on his election, but the North Korean outlook may become clear in the response to a suggestion by one of Lee's senior advisors that Pyongyang send a senior leader to Lee's inauguration on February 25.

The idea, as proposed by Nam Sung-wook at Korea University, is that South Korea should send an envoy to Pyongyang to invite Kim Young-nam, North Korea's second highest-ranking leader in his capacity as president of the presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, to attend Lee Myung-bak's swearing-in.

No one, however, is seriously expecting North Korea to go along with the idea, especially while a special prosecutor is still investigating Lee's alleged connection with an investment fund whose top executive, his former business partner, faces trial for stock manipulation and embezzlement.

Assuming Lee survives that embarrassment, Kim Jong-il may want to see what Lee really means when he talks about "verification" and "human rights" with the same determination shown by conservative American think-tankers.

"Verification is a very broad term," said Fitzpatrick. "The devil will be in the details. Maybe he'd be expected to go ahead with a little less speed, and he would be more inclined to listen to the US." All of which pretty well rules out North Korea detailing its nuclear inventory, much less abandoning the program, while waiting to see how much Lee will be willing to yield.

Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

No comments: