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All Headlines 11:30 June 19, 2008


Second Stage of North's Denuclearization and Future Prospects

By Jinwook Choi (Senior Research Fellow, Korea Institute for National Unification, Seoul, Korea)

North Korea handed over documents detailing activity at its key nuclear reactor to the United States on May 8, and is expected to make an official declaration of its nuclear activities to China, chair of the six-party talks. The United States briefly examined the approximately 18,000 pages of documents and seemed to be satisfied with their contents. In return for Pyongyang's nuclear declaration, Washington will move to take North Korea off the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring states. If that happens, the second stage of North Korea's denuclearization will be complete as agreed by the six nations -- both Koreas, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan -- on October 3, 2007.

The initial stage was completed as North Korea shut down and sealed its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in July 2007, as agreed by the six nations on February 13 of that year. But the completion of the second stage -- the North's disablement of facilities and declaration of its nuclear activities -- was delayed over two controversial issues: North Korea's alleged nuclear cooperation with Syria and uranium enrichment program (UEP). However, the issues were resolved by Washington's dramatic concession in Singapore on April 8, 2008 in which the United States and North Korea agreed that the former would make a declaration of the two issues and the latter would "acknowledge" the U.S. concern over the issues and not "challenge" the facts.

Positions of the United States and North Korea

The Singapore agreement was immediately called an "agreement" by North Korea, while the United States called it a "tentative agreement" for a few weeks. In fact, there was growing concern in the United States about how to verify what North Korea had never admitted. Since then, the Bush administration began to emphasize the importance of verification of the North Korean declaration. In the summit between the U.S. and South Korea, held a few days after the Singapore Agreement, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak endorsed it after President Bush called for thorough verification.

From the U.S. perspective, the most important step is to stop North Korea from producing any more plutonium. Otherwise President Bush cannot avoid responsibility for the failure to stop North Korea's nuclear activities, since the North reportedly increased its amount of plutonium from 10kg to 50kg during his eight years in office. He also desperately needs a political legacy to make up for a big failure in Iraq. In the meantime, the United States could make a concession on North Korean nuclear cooperation with Syria and the UEP which are perceived as much less imminent issues.

From North Korea's perspective, it has little to lose. The North already produced as much as 50kg of plutonium and probably made several warheads. By disabling the facilities and declaring its nuclear activities, North Korea can reduce international pressure which has risen since its nuclear test in October 2006. It can also gain economic aid and improve relations with the United States in return for disablement and the declaration. In fact, the United States announced that it would provide a half-million tons of rice to North Korea immediately after the North handed in documents detailing its nuclear activities, as agreed last November. In further negotiations, North Korea can be regarded as a potential nuclear power.

Prospects for North Korean Nuclear Issue

As the six-party talks are scheduled to resume in early June, they are expected to discuss the remaining procedures to complete the second stage of denuclearization. However, the United States and North Korea will have difficulty agreeing on the scope and method of verification. It seems highly unlikely that North Korea will fully cooperate with the U.S. effort to establish a verification mechanism.

Both Washington and Pyongyang will share common interests in promoting political events in spite of technical difficulties in verifying the nuclear declaration. North Korea is to reportedly blow up a cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear site before it is removed from the U.S. list on terrorism-sponsoring states. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has a chance to visit Pyongyang to discuss opening liaison offices in both capitals. It is more likely that North Korean artists will perform in New York or Washington, as the New York Philharmonic did in Pyongyang last February. Washington's announcement of humanitarian food aid is a signal of such developments.

It is unlikely that the relationship between the two sides will develop in a full-fledged fashion, however, although talks between Washington and Pyongyang are expected to take place for the time being. Such important agreements on the North Korean nuclear program as the September 19 Joint Statement of 2005, the February 13 Agreement of 2007, and the October 3 Agreement have never allowed an optimistic outlook on North Korea's denuclearization. In fact, nobody is certain that Pyongyang will give up its nuclear program.

North Korea is interested in further developing relations with the United States, since its foremost concern is to gain a security guarantee from Washington. If the North wants to develop relations with the United States, however, it needs to carry out verification and dismantlement. For Pyongyang, which considers its nuclear program as the key to its survival, it is not an easy decision. North Korea is also afraid of the side effects from opening and reform, as Kim Jong-il publicly said in the inter-Korean summit last October. Thus, the North's short-term goal is to improve relations with the United States and remove a barrier to inter-Korean economic cooperation and economic aid from the South. From the experience of the past several years, North Korea realized that there is a limit to such economic cooperation as that at the Kaesong industrial complex without improving relations with the U.S.

Relations between the United States and North Korea

The United States desperately needed to get the North to stop producing plutonium and agree to submit the declaration. After the second stage of denuclearization is completed, however, it seems that the United States will not desperately want much from the North. On the contrary, the Bush administration may be under criticism from hardliners at home who are not satisfied with an indirect North Korean declaration of the UEP and nuclear cooperation with Syria. North Korean human rights as well as verification of the denuclearization may re-emerge as hot issues.

In other words, the Bush administration does not seem eager to enter the third stage and cannot afford to concentrate on the issue. Given his lame-duck status, President Bush's policy is subject to influence by Republican presidential candidate John McCain's view. The Bush administration maintains a tough position towards North Korea in terms of anti-terrorism, nonproliferation, and proliferation of democracy. President Bush also maintains a negative perception of Kim Jong-il and does not want to be remembered as his savior.

To sum up, it is very unlikely for the United States and North Korea to enter the third stage, including dismantlement of the North's nuclear weapons and programs, during President Bush's term. The relationship between the United States and North Korea after the second stage may remain stagnant until mid-2009 when the next U.S. administration is expected to come up with a new North Korea policy.

Since the February 13 Agreement, North Korea wanted to develop relations with South Korea as well as the U.S. The North expected to benefit from the rapprochement with the South. Diplomatically, Seoul is sympathetic toward Pyongyang in the six-party talks. Economically, over the last several years, South Korea has provided as much as a half-million tons of rice and 300,000 tons of fertilizers annually, and North Korea has enjoyed a surplus of hundreds of millions of dollars in inter-Korean trade. Politically, the South has regarded Kim Jong-il as a planner of North Korean reform, and wanted to support him rather than pursue regime change.

The advent of the conservative government in the South, however, made Pyongyang change its policy towards Seoul. North Korea began to raise the tension by criticizing President Lee Myung-bak and his policy toward Pyongyang. North Korea may want to nullify President Lee's policy towards the North by encouraging internal conflict over the policy in South Korea. The North also wants to promote its own stability by criticizing President Lee. The fact that the North is afraid of a South Korean conservative government may have a negative impact on its elites as well as its population. Particularly, the Lee government refused to adopt the June 15 Declaration and the October 3 Declaration which are considered by the North as great legacies of Kim Jong-il.

Prospects for Inter-Korean Relations

As the second stage of North Korean denuclearization nears completion and relations with the United States improve, North Korea seems to be taking a tougher position on the South. This year, North Korea's food shortages are worse than usual because of flooding last year, and the price of rice has risen to 3,000 won, more than twice that of early this year. It is estimated that North Korea is 1.5 million tons short of its demand, but it does not seem to be too serious. North Korea imports hundreds of thousands of tons of rice from China and receives humanitarian aid from international organizations including the World Food Program (WFP). Moreover, the U.S. decision to provide a half-million tons of grain to the North seems to make up for the loss from the South.

In the meantime, it is unlikely that the North will accept whatever the South proposes. North Korea is raising tensions and excluding South Korea in the midst of rapprochement with the United States. North Korea may want to pressure South Korea to give up its tough stance toward the North. In other words, inter-Korean relations may remain stagnant regardless of South Korean efforts to make a breakthrough.

Nevertheless, South Korea needs to specify its North Korea policy and explain it to the North as well as the neighboring countries. The stagnation of inter-Korean relations is partially attributed to North Korean misunderstanding of the Lee Myung-bak government. It does not intend to isolate or antagonize the North, but wants to upgrade inter-Korean relations to more market-oriented ones. As for humanitarian aid, South Korea needs to consider providing rice to the North through the WFP which will guarantee the monitoring of its distribution to those who need it the most. North Korea will be more interested in developing inter-Korean relations next year if the food crisis worsens and there is a stalemate in relations with the United States. (Yonhap News)

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