Go to Contents Go to Navigation


All Headlines 14:11 July 31, 2008



By Tong Kim
Research professor at the Korea University's Ilmin Institute of International Relations in Seoul and adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

Despite the deterioration of inter-Korean relations in recent months, the six-party process of North Korean denuclearization is making steady progress. The latest development in the process was an "informal" six-party ministerial meeting held on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Singapore, in which United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice participated along with DPRK (North Korea) Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun for the first time. Such a meeting was initially to be held upon completion of the initial phase of denuclearization, requiring the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities in compliance with the Feb. 13, 2007 agreement.

The meeting finally took place when the second phase of disablement was finished and after North Korea filed its declaration of its nuclear programs. From the beginning, the ministerial meeting was expected to confirm support for the multilateral effort for denuclearization instead of finding a new breakthrough. Its symbolism helped build confidence in the six-party talks.

Since the DPRK submitted its nuclear declaration, there has been a series of hectic developments, including the Bush administration's notice to the U.S. Congress of its intent to remove the DPRK from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in 45 days, and the spectacular demolition of the cooling tower of the Yongbyon reactor the next day, for which the Bush administration reportedly paid US$2.5 million of American taxpayers' money.

Series of Hectic Developments

It appears at this writing that Congress as a whole is unlikely to oppose the delisting, even though some conservative members are not happy with the incompleteness of the North Korean declaration, especially with regards to the DPRK's alleged involvement in nuclear proliferation to Syria and its uranium enrichment program. There is still significant resistance from the conservative group in Washington to lifting sanctions until a rigid, intrusive verification protocol is implemented.

Without transparent verification - including short-notice onsite inspections, access to documents and North Korean scientists, and an assured role for the IAEA -- the conservatives believe any agreement with the North is worthless. They believe North Korea is still part of the "axis of evil." On July 21, the White House spokesperson said that until the North Koreans "give up their nuclear weapons programs completely and verifiably … we will keep them in the same category of the axis of evil."

Nevertheless, given the Bush administration's interest in leaving a favorable foreign policy legacy to make up for its failures in Iraq and Iran, the DPRK will likely get off the list of terrorism sponsors effective Aug. 11, and will be freed from the sanctions imposed by the Trading with the Enemy Act. President Bush and his secretary of state have repeatedly stated that since they cannot trust North Korea, only verification will create confidence between them and the North Koreans, with whom they are negotiating. The Bush administration is living up to Ronald Reagan's Cold War adage: "Trust but Verify."

U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill said that the North Koreans have objected to some parts of a draft verification protocol that he produced during the last six-party meeting in Beijing. The negotiators also agreed in the last meeting that the phase two requirements -- completion of disablement and the provision of the remaining portion of promised economic aid -- shall be implemented by the end of October this year.

From the U.S. point of view, the consensus at the meeting to quickly agree on a verification mechanism to probe the veracity of the North Korean declaration is more important. Verification can proceed in parallel with discussions on the third and final phase of denuclearization, which should ensure the actual dismantlement of the disabled nuclear facilities and the final disposition of the plutonium and nuclear devices now in the hands of the DPRK.

One of the possible North Korean objections to the proposed U.S. verification protocol is not difficult to deduce considering Pyongyang's relations with IAEA in the early 1990s, when the atomic energy watchdog found discrepancies in Pyongyang's reported amount of plutonium it had extracted from reprocessing and demanded special inspections of the suspected sites. The confrontation was the genesis that triggered the first nuclear crisis in 1994. Although the DPRK allowed IAEA inspections of the shutdown and disablement of its nuclear facilities as part of the six-party agreements, it would never like the IAEA's role in the verification of its declaration.

Another problem area would be the scope of sites for inspection. The North Koreans would never allow access to undisclosed sites that may be storing fissile material or nuclear bombs. During the negotiations for inspection visits to the suspected underground nuclear facilities at Kumchang-ri in the late 1990s, the North Koreans were adamantly opposed to visiting underground tunnels besides the one pinpointed at Kumchang-ri. They said they did not want to become like Iraq, where U.N. inspectors were rummaging around, collecting the sensitive security information of that country. Pyongyang has a track record of defying the warnings of U.S. resolutions and other forms of pressure.

North Korea's Intention for Full Denuclearization

However, the DPRK has already turned over to the U.S. approximately 18,000 pages of documents related to its nuclear activity. They would have no objection to collecting materials that may be needed for verification, such as samples of residue chemicals, photographs of the facilities and other related materials. But interviews with the technical personnel could create a problem, for they could be construed by the DPRK as an interrogation of its sovereign subjects by foreigners. The North Koreans are traditionally allergic to foreign interference and to the free capitalist West.

Even at this juncture, there are lingering doubts as to the DPRK's intention for full denuclearization. Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun's statement at the ARF meeting that the DPRK wants to be recognized as a nuclear power confirms the same message that Jack Pritchard, a former U.S. nuclear envoy and current president of the Korean Economic Institute (KEI) in Washington, had brought from his April visit to Pyongyang. There is no evidence that any specific discussion on the final disposition of the DPRK's fissile materials and nuclear devices has taken place. In the framework of the denuclearization process, this subject is to be taken up in the third and final phase.

Putting aside the Bush administration's earlier North Korean policy failure, the current state of denuclearization is remarkably positive: much more progress was made than under the 1994 Agreed Framework. The DPRK's plutonium-production facilities at Yongbyon --including a 5-megawatt reactor, a reprocessing plant and a fuel fabrication facility -- were shut down, and they will be completely disabled by October. Now the DPRK is not producing additional fissile material to increase its nuclear arsenal.

Whatever the real reason may be for North Korea's apparent decision to abandon or dismantle the Yongbyon facilities, which are decades old but still working with proper maintenance by live-or-die North Korean workers, who can extend the normal life cycles of industrial facilities and equipment -- the North Koreans seem to believe they have enough plutonium in their hands for the survival of their regime and to use for political and negotiating purposes. As few as four nuclear bombs, for example -- not 40 -- would be enough for North Korea to threaten and deter attack from the U.S. and its ally, South Korea.

Verification Process

If and when the DPRK eventually decides to give up its nuclear weapons, continued production of plutonium would be an unwanted investment of scarce resources, which could be more constructively used to turn around its impoverished economy. An increase in its nuclear arsenal would only deprive North Korea of a hard-won opportunity to receive badly needed economic aid from the international community.

A verification process, once it begins, is expected to take months and could be extended into the term of the next U.S. administration. Even if this verification process proceeds smoothly, and even if negotiation of the final phase succeeds in the familiar format of "action for action" -- in exchange for economic and political rewards -- it should include a peace agreement assuring the security of North Korea and a normalized U.S.-DPRK relationship. However, it just does not seem that there is enough time to accomplish all these in the six months left of the Bush administration.

Perhaps one of the toughest hurdles on the path to complete denuclearization is the same lack of trust between Washington and Pyongyang that triggered the first nuclear crisis in 1994 and the second crisis after the North's nuclear test in October 2006. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il will likely make his final decision to give up nuclear weapons only when he feels comfortable enough to trust the U.S.

The late "great leader" Kim Il-sung told former President Jimmy Carter in 1994 that the fundamental problem between the U.S. and the DPRK is lack of mutual trust, and therefore, the main task for both countries is to "create trust" as a first step to improve relations. The DPRK says it is committed to carrying out the late leader's will for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but only when it is convinced that the U.S. has given up its hostile policy "completely and comprehensively." In theory, there is no way to ease the DPRK's mind. For example, a joint U.S.-ROK military exercise is proof of U.S. hostility because North Korea does not trust the stated defensive purpose of the exercise.

In the face of the serious problem of distrust, the U.S. accepted North Korea's proposals for taking simultaneous actions in the Agreed Framework between the two hostile and distrustful parties -- a practical solution, although not fully satisfactory. Again in the Sept. 19, 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-party Talks, the U.S. agreed to the adoption of an "action for action" approach. The joint statement was hailed as a landmark document, committing the DPRK to "abandoning all nuclear weapons and programs for the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

The North Koreans have argued that they cannot unilaterally disarm by giving up nuclear weapons before they receive corresponding economic and political rewards for dismantlement. They have also pointed out that the two countries are still technically at war, claiming that the U.S. maintains a hostile policy against their country. They frequently refer to an analogy of a standoff between two adversaries aiming their guns at each other, and neither one will drop his gun first. The North Koreans further insist that since North Korea will never capitulate to U.S. pressure or threat, the only way to defuse the confrontation is for both sides to put down their weapons at the same time.

Future Rounds of Nuclear Talks

Without getting the plutonium and nuclear weapons out of North Korea, denuclearization will not be complete, and the security situation on the Korean Peninsula will remain as perilous as ever and certainly worse than before the eruption of the second nuclear crisis. To live up to the purpose of the Six-party Talks -- that is, to achieve a denuclearized Korean Peninsula -- future rounds of nuclear talks should focus on ways to completely dismantle the disabled facilities and to eliminate the plutonium and nuclear weapons from North Korea. A phase three agreement should include specific steps for the verification of dismantlement and disposition of both plutonium and actual weapons.

In conclusion, the DPRK is still carefully calculating the benefits and risks at every step as it moves toward the presumed final destination of denuclearization. In the DPRK decision makers' calculation, their perception of a weakened U.S. position stemming from the costly, unpopular war in Iraq and the changing domestic political situation in Washington would be an important factor.

The currently strained state of inter-Korean relations could affect South Korea's role in the denuclearization process. South Korea may end up paying a high price down the road in the process -- especially when it takes up the issue of a peace mechanism -- if it does not resume inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation. During the four-party talks in the 1990s, North Korea tried to exclude South Korea from the discussion of a peace regime on the grounds that South Korea was not a signatory to the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953.

Final denuclearization would require the normalization of relations between the U.S. and the DPRK and a discussion about the light-water reactors that the DPRK would like to have. Clearly, denuclearization still has a long way to go, with many difficult problems to surmount along the way. Regardless of who becomes the next president of the U.S., this process will continue, and so will the DPRK's nuclear game. (Yonhap News)

Send Feedback
How can we improve?
Thanks for your feedback!