Tuesday, February 13, 2007

So We Want to Cooperate "Indirectly" on Energy Aid to North Korea? What Happens When They Refuse?

If reports are correct, North Korea is going to get a lot more out of the Five for their Yongbyon facilities than Mr. Hashimoto, or even I, had expected. As a tasting sample, North Korea will receive 50,000 tons for stopping operations at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. On the other hand, North Korea must permanently disable its nuclear program to get its hand hands on the remaining 950,000 tons of fuel oil on the table. So both sides have made compromises.

This deals also brings tangible benefits to the US. It can be reasonably certain that North Korea has been bought off on the proliferation issue. And I expect North Korea to lay off the counterfeiting operations. (Where will the Taiwanese counterfeiters turn next? Myanmar? Cambodia?)

But what about Japan's concerns? There is no mention of the North Korean missile program. Rest assured that North Korea will continue work on it. More important, how much work can North Korea do on miniaturization of its nuclear explosives without been detected? How long will it take to complete the task? A Sankei article suggested Japan would require three years to acquire its own nuclear weapon. And we haven't even mentioned North Korea's uranium enrichment program. To avoid any possibility of the Japanese clock starting to run, China should hope to keep North Korea on a very short leash.

In fact, North Korea is likely to put one obstacle after another in front of the Five, beginning with UN inspectors. And it knows China and South Korea are not going to let it collapse all over them. With this baseline support available to the Kim Jong-il regime, the consume-by date of this agreement is likely to be much shorter than the 1994 one.

In the meantime, the Japanese authorities have been saying, predictably, that progress on the abductees issue is required before it offers any substantial help. Barring such an unlikely event (I would be surprised to say the least if North Korea agreed to explicitly reopen the issue, which looks like the minimum the Abe adminstration can call progress and get away with domestically), the prime minister and the foreign minister have been saying that Japan will cooperate "indirectly". That is, Japan will help determine how much energy assistance North Korea actually needs and ensure that the assistance actually reaches the North Koreans in need. Very noble, but North Korea wants Santa Claus, not a monitor/enforcer. In fact, I can see this easily becoming a deal breaker, before and after the agreement goes into the implementation stage. I'm guessing the Three will quietly ask Japan to sit this one out.

I may have more to say when the full deal becomes clear. But these are my first impressions. Let's hope that China has been really turning the heat on North Korea, and I'm wrong in so many ways.

There was a time when the Abe administration could have called the working group on normalization of bilateral ties itself as progress. No more; it no longer has the political capital to spare for something that will only bring grief down the line for the Abe administration.

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