Saturday, January 05, 2008

Parsing the Recent Flurry of Inactivity over the North Korea’s Nuclear Program

The 31 December deadline for North Korea to disable three nuclear facilities including the Yongbyon reactors and to provide a complete and correct declaration of its nuclear program passed without comment from the North Korean government. It did not escape notice by the Bush administration though, which issued this statement through the U.S. State Department on December 30. The following is a somewhat ungrammatical excerpt that initially reveals its displeasure, putting the blame on the North Korean side on both counts:

It is unfortunate that North Korea has not yet met its commitments by providing a complete and correct declaration of its nuclear programs and slowing down the process of disablement.

However, the following day, the White House seemed to give North Korea a pass, as the following excerpt from this press gaggle* at the White House shows:

“The United States actually slowed down part of the disablement process, and that is not something that we blamed the North Koreans for, but we wanted that to be done in a safe and secure manner. So we are not blaming the North Koreans for the slowdown in that disablement process”.

North Korea, took the bait and bit off more by way of a January 4 Foreign Ministry statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency of D.P.R.K., the state wire service (but not yet available on the KCNA English page). The following is an excerpt of sorts from this NYTarticle:

North Korea said the disablement work at Yongbyon was “completed within the technologically possible scope as of Dec. 31.”

But since the aid** delivery “has not been done even 50 percent,” the North had to “adjust the speed of the nuclear disablement process,” it said. The work of unloading spent fuel rods from the North’s nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, a crucial part of the disablement, will take an additional 100 days, it said.

North Korea appears to agree with the White House that they carry no blame for not meeting the deadline. Although there is a whiff of that maddening ESL/partial-quote vagueness here, it appears that the North Korean “adjustment” is the threat of a post-December 31 delay, and does not refer to the pre-deadline “slowdown”. The following excerpt from a subsequent January 4 press briefing shows the U.S. State Department also taking that tack and choosing to all but ignore the North Korean threat:

We also look forward to their completing the disablement phase up at Yongbyon. That is moving forward and there is good progress on that.

So the opening North Korean bid for 2008 seems to be:

Half of Phase Two for half the 1,000,000 tons HFE.

Clearly, this part of the deal is doable. But the other half - the “complete and correct declaration” of the North Korean nuclear program - looks far more difficult. On that point, KCNA has, again according to the NYT article, the following:

The [North Korean Foreign Ministry’s] statement said that North Korea had already conducted “enough discussions” with the United States officials after they demanded more negotiations on its November draft declaration and that “[a]s far as the nuclear declaration on which wrong opinion is being built up by some quarters is concerned, the D.P.R.K. has done what it should do.”

This claim could have been interpreted to mean that North Korea would not give any more information on the uranium enrichment program that it had denied having once the Six-Party talks began, or on its plutonium stockpile and nuclear explosive devices. The State Department Spokesman chose to give it a positive spin, reminding us of the following:

[T]he fact is they haven't turned in a final declaration yet. They're going to turn that in to the Chinese as chair, conveners of the six-party meetings and we don't have that yet. We look forward to a full and complete declaration.


And part of the reasons why they are not right now is we are breaking new ground in terms of what we're doing, in terms of disabling Yongbyon and in terms of working with North Korea in the six-party talks to get a full, complete picture of their nuclear program, not something that has ever been done before***.

But even the amount of processed plutonium is in dispute, if the following excerpt from thisWaPo article is to be believed:

A Japanese newspaper quoted North Korean and U.S. officials as saying that the North has reported making about 66 pounds of plutonium, considerably less than U.S. estimates.

The article continues with the following riff on the state sponsors of terrorism list, injecting another element into speculation over North Korean motives:

In Pyongyang, there appears to be anger and frustration over the U.S. government's reluctance to remove North Korea from its list of states that sponsor terrorism.

The Bush administration suggested in October that it would pursue such a removal, but has since made clear that all promises regarding nuclear facilities and programs must first be met.

And there the article abruptly ends, without even a mention of a Japanese role in the alleged U.S. step-back. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the Bush administration standing up to Congress and large segments of the Republican constituency for a deal that takes North Korea off the list without a satisfactory and explainable rendering of its nuclear program. Japanese insistence on the abductees issue should cast a shadow there as well, particularly in light of the 2007 House of Representatives resolution on the comfort women.

As for the Six-Party talks as a whole, the State Department spokesman stated the following in his response to the question on the North Korean statement on the nuclear program:

The first thing I'll note about what they said is that they are committed to the six-party process. That is, I think, the kicker line in their statement and there is every evidence that they are still committed to the six-party process and are moving forward with the implementation of this phase of the agreement as was outlined back in October.

So it looks like the talks will continue, with North Korea extracting the maximum possible from the disablement process and prolonging the nuclear program declaration as long as they can.

It is barely conceivable that the lame-duck Bush administration could bring the North Koreans around to a deal on the declaration that it can defend against Congressional accusations of caving in. But that would require North Korea to make a couple of difficult decisions, at least one of which would completely strip North Korea of the strategic ambiguity that it currently enjoys.

First, the two sides must come up with a plausible explanation of the scope and extent of North Korea’s uranium program, or, much less likely, a convincing case that there is no such thing. This is possible if North Korea determines that its uranium enrichment program is so rudimentary and its lead time accordingly so long that its strategic value is small enough to trade it in for delisting and the rest of the 1,000,000 tons. Let me put it this way; I don’t have any information that shows that to be impossible. But second, the two sides must come up with a plausible explanation of the scope and extent of North Korea’s plutonium stockpile and nuclear arsenal, such as there is. This is far more problematic than the enrichment program. The power, real and imagined, of these two elements that comprise the bulk of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent and serve as the symbol of the conflict with the U.S. is substantially amplified by the opacity of North Korea’s nuclear program. The perception of vulnerability as the result of a defensibly (from the viewpoint of the Bush administration of course) transparent deal will have serious domestic implications for the North Korean regime. Frankly, I don’t see North Korea jumping this shark any time soon, though I hope to be wrong.

Beyond 2008, a Democratic administration could very well re-inject a human rights angle into the picture, adding further complications, even if the Chris-Hill approach survives regime change. Given that the perception of a U.S. threat and the resultant perpetual state of emergency are actually a stabilizing element for the authoritarian regime, and that South Korea and China appear willing to continue to buy off the North Korean regime indefinitely, my money is on phase two extending itself deep into the foreseeable future. And in the less probable case of a North Korean decision to effectively conclude phase two, North Korea will find reasons to perpetuate the Six-Party talks at the threshold of phase three.

The upside, if you can call it that, to these short- and long-term outcomes that I find likely is that they entrench the status quo. The nuclear threat lies dormant in a North Korea in near-institutional stasis, while everyone waits for Kim Jong Il to pass away. This is obviously not the worst case scenario for Japan. For the Fukuda administration, this situation allows it to table a decision on the abductees issue at least until after the next Lower House election, a decision that could open the Prime Minister’s flank to an attack from the LDP right wing.

* Official term.

** The “aid” refers to the 1,000,000 tons of heavy fuel oil equivalent.

*** Note that on this point, the NYT article erroneously links the two sides of the deal, saying, “The State Department’s spokesman, Sean McCormack, said that the United States and the other countries involved in the talks had not reacted more strongly to the missed deadline because foreign nuclear experts were continuing their work to dismantle the Yongbyon plant, hoping through that work to learn more about aspects of North Korea’s nuclear program.” Such discrepancies happen because the State Department correspondent cannot be expected to fully understand a press briefing that covers anything from North Korea’s nuclear program to Kenya’s presidential election. But someone should have checked it against the transcript.

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