Friday, April 18, 2008

Chris Hill’s Latest Foray Yields Tentative Agreement, or a Half: Some Implications

...needs more editing, but I ran out of time and energy...

An agreement on the implementation of phase two of the 2007 February 13 Six-Party Action Plan is in the air.

On, April 8, Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill’s held talks in Singapore with his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye Gwan. After the talks, he flew to Beijing the same night and on the following day briefed his Chinese, South Korean, and Japan colleagues in the Six-Party Talks process (and the Russian Embassy in Beijing). After returning to Washington, on April 10, he briefed U.S. lawmakers in a closed session. According to this well-sourced Reuters report, Mr. Hill and his North Korean counterpart reached a tentative agreement along the following lines:

Several people familiar with Hill's [April 10] briefing said he gave U.S. lawmakers the impression he hoped to bring about such a [North Korean] declaration [on its nuclear program] within weeks. According to these people, the declaration would have three parts:

-- North Korea's disclosure of its plutonium stockpile, which Pyongyang has estimated at 66 pounds (30 kg), as well as records that would allow the United [S]tates to verify this figure;

-- a U.S. "bill of particulars" laying out U.S. concerns about North Korea's suspected uranium enrichment program as well as its suspected nuclear proliferation activities;

-- North Korea's acknowledgment of the U.S. concerns.

On Monday, April 14, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino confirmed in a press briefing that President Bush is also on board. Like it or, not, everybody has been duly informed; the clock is running again. But to what end?

Now even if - we’re talking about North Korea - the deal goes through, such a declaration by no means concludes phase two. As Ms. Rice stated in her remarks on April 11:

Any document that we get, any declaration that we get, has to be verified and it has to be verifiable. And we have to make certain that we have means to assess what the North Koreans tell us, and we have to have means to verify what the North Koreans tell us.

Now, you can’t verify overnight some of these complicated programs that the North Koreans have been engaged in. But we have to be absolutely certain that we’ve got means to do it. And by the way, it’s not just the United States. It is all of the members of the six parties that have to be a part of this process of accounting for the North Korean programs and then verifying what we’ve been told and then finding ways to dismantle them.

So it does not necessarily amount to a U.S. copout, unless, of course, the Bush administration delists North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and releases it from restrictions under the Trading with the Enemies Act before “accounting for the North Korean programs and then verifying what we’ve been told and then finding ways to dismantle them.” After all, if past behavior is any indication, North Korea will do its best to wrest as many concessions as possible every step of the way. And that’s assuming that it really wants to move forward on phase two. In this respect, it is little short of flabbergasting that more than four months after the December 31 deadline, we still don’t know what the situation is in Yongbyon, as Ms. Rice readily admitted in the same April 11 remarks:

The North Koreans, of course, also have obligations in terms of disabling the Yongbyon facilities, and so we are not yet at a point where we can make a judgment as to whether or not the North Koreans have met their obligations and we are therefore not at a point at which the United States can make a judgment as to whether or not it’s time to exercise our obligations. But when we have made that judgment, we will be prepared to exercise the obligations that we’ve undertaken.

So, it is hard for me to believe that the Bush administration will make moves that give up any meaningful leverage unless they are paralleled by significant moves in the right direction. At a minimum, North Korea’s entire plutonium cache and its status would surely have to be verified before it does. But the uranium enrichment program is a different animal. Merely recognizing U.S. concerns however explicitly they are stated is not a declaration at all. It does not on the face of it require any further North Korean action. Read Ms. Rice’s comments again:

Any document that we get, any declaration that we get, has to be verified and it has to be verifiable. And we have to make certain that we have means to assess what the North Koreans tell us, and we have to have means to verify what the North Koreans tell us.

I ask you, how do you verify an acknowledgement of concerns? You can’t. The uranium enrichment program appears to have been put aside, mothballed, if you will, as an issue.

This is the height of irony. Remember, we wound up in this lengthy process because in 2002 October, James Kelly, Mr. Hill’s predecessor, challenged North Korea with allegations of a clandestine uranium enrichment program. In the meantime, North Korea conducted ballistic missile tests and likely a nuclear test (albeit incomplete at best). Iraq, Iran, and now, North Korea. I know that in my case it’s mostly hindsight, but, still, I can’t help thinking - the Bush administration hit the trifecta of evils. But I digress.

However, will Congress accept this bill of goods? It can stop the executive branch from delisting North Korea, you know. And why would the Democratic Party want to give the Bush administration a pass on this, in an election year to boot? Some Republicans - presidential candidate and Mr. National Security John McCain for one - also may not want to cave on the uranium enrichment program and leave the mysterious Syrian facilities obliterated by Israel as well as allegations of possible North Korean ties to Iran on hold. Then, there’s also the human rights angle. Remember, the state sponsor designation still rests in part on the abductees issue, albeit highly toned down in the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2007. Could a majority of the U.S. Congress ignore appeals from the families of the Japanese abductees, especially after adopting the Honda resolution on the comfort women? Will the Korean-American lobby stand by and ignore the plight of the far more numerous South Korean victims, especially now that the sunshine policy has been occluded (if only in part) by Roh Moo-hyun’s less sympathetic successor?

So there are serious uncertainties concerning the prospective agreement between nailing it down with the North Koreans, bringing Congress on board, and executing it. I still remain highly skeptical of North Korea’s intentions, I also have serious doubts about a lame-duck administration that has no one with a stake in pushing the agenda in the presidential election (no, Ms. Rice is not going to run for Vice President) being able to get the double delisting past Congress.

But what if it does happen? Who knows, maybe the North Korean regime has come to the conclusion that going forward on its plutonium program actually enhances its chances for survival. What would that mean to Japan?

To consider that matter, first let me remind you what the other members of the Six-Party Talks process want from Japan. That consists of two things: 1) give massive aid to North Korea as the consequence of the normalization of the bilateral relationship in the event of a successful conclusion; and in the meantime 2) Give humanitarian, economic, and energy aid to North Korea and ease/drop economic sanctions thereon as quid pro quo for progress.

Unlike South Korea (or, of course, China or Russia), Japan’s position is based not only on concerns over North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction but also the fate of its abducted nationals. With regard to point 1), i.e. normalization, it is in essence a bilateral issue, and the other members of the Six –Party Talks process should be expected to live with whatever Japan and North Korea, with the standoff over the abductees issue, manage to do with it. But point 2) is different. Given the fact that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal (assuming it has one) is basically targeted at Japan*, it is Japan that has the most to gain in terms of national security. Accordingly, it makes sense for the other members to look to Japan to come forth as progress is made.

The United States is also linked to the abductees issue, but only tangentially through its designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. The Bush administration has been mindful of the political sensitivity of the issue to its Japanese allies - Kim Jong Il’s admission and apology in 2002 when Prime Minister Koizumi attempted to normalize bilateral relations backfired and created the first major crisis for the Koizumi administration; the problem remains intractable today - but the 2007 February 13 Action Plan implicitly allows that the US will go forward with its own normalization agenda on the basis of the progress on the nuclear issue alone. As we have already explored here, the Bush administration is clearly prepared to move ahead.

As we have also seen, Congress could get in the way. But if the process does move forward, the Fukuda administration will be put in an increasingly awkward spot in the Six-Party Talks process unless a viable way in terms of domestic politics can be found to delink the abductees issue from the North Korean nuclear program. The politics of the matter are complicated, and I hope to explore the subject on another occasion. In the meantime, let me repeat the following footnote to this December 19 post:

****** In the unlikely event that North Korean side does declare its nuclear stockpile, I’m sure that the Bush administration will move to delist North Korea. The Japanese authorities will acknowledge the matter gracefully; they have no choice. It will be useful to remind the Japanese public that Japanese sanctions against North Korea were first linked to the abductees issue (to the best of my knowledge) in 2006 October, when restrictions were tightened in response to the North Korean nuclear test. Thus, if there is meaningful progress toward actual destruction of the stockpile (as opposed to mere declaration), Japan will be rightfully expected to begin rolling back those sanctions. But that is a bridge that will not be reached in the foreseeable future.

It looks likely that where “the unlikely event” is concerned, half of it has prospects of occurring, the U.S. Congress willing**. In the following months, we will see if “the foreseeable future” stretches beyond the Bush administration.

* Narushige Michishita has this 2007 article that among other things illuminates this point.

** An early indication of the extent to and speed with which the Bush administration intends to move forward should appear in the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2007, to be issued as early as the end of this month.

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