Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Japan Provokes North Korea Threat to Resuscitate Yongbyon Reactors? Think Again.

If you read only this Reuters report, you might think that Japan’s refusal to provide heavy fuel oil under the 2007 October 3 Six-Parties Agreement is to blame for North Korea’s threat to stop dismantling its core nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. Not true. All the five powers had decided to suspend fuel shipments after the December Six-Party talks because North Korea would not agree to a verification protocol, as this State Department briefing notes (it is more carefully laid out in this VOA report), although Russia and China appears to have later denied agreeing to such a thing. Reuters obviously failed to factcheck the Kyodo wire report on which the report was based. Besides, the tab for the “Japanese” portion of the fuel aid was going to be picked up by Australia, with the understanding that Japan would shoulder a proportionately larger share of the burden further down the line.

Then why is North Korea blaming Japan weeks after the deed? If you could read the original Kyodo wire, you would find that the whole thing stemmed from a somewhat misleading press briefing that Yoshihiro Kawakami, a hardcore pro-North Korea parliamentarian gave in Beijing after talks with an North Korean Embassy official there. Kawakami essentially did the proverbial “awakening the sleeping baby”. As an enterprising Asahi reporter in Tokyo later found out by asking Kawakami himself, the North Korean official had told him that “it doesn’t matter if (Japan’s share of the assistance) is [coming from] another country, but if it doesn’t happen, (the disabling operation) will be to that extent suspended. ((日本の分の支援は)別の国でも構わないが、できなければ(無能力化作業は)その分だけ中断される。)”

Of course the North Korean official would have badmouthed the official Japanese line; he was talking to a sympathetic Japanese Diet member, who could be expected to follow suit. But even that Kawakami took note of the fact and duly reported that it was the fuel oil (or its equivalent) that counted, not the name on the CARE package. As an aside to this post but a matter very significant for the security situation in the region, I note that the North Korean official indicated a proportional suspension of disablement, not a reversal thereof. This may have been a slip of the tongue by the official (unlikely) or misunderstanding by Kawakami (possible), but if true, it would be signal from the North Korean side that, for the time being, a freeze of the status quo—North Korea retains strategic ambiguity regarding its nuclear capacity but makes no overt move to enhance it—that I predicted more than a year ago is in store, at least until President-Elect Obama has settled in and is ready to deal with the issue, not a sure thing during the first years of his administration.

The New York Times actually gets a lot of the facts right in its December 29 editorial, although it predictably manages to misrepresent the Japanese position on fuel aid. To quote:
Japan was already reneging on its commitment to supply fuel aid, and Australia, which had stepped into the breach, announced that it would withhold its contribution.
This is a gross misrepresentation of the Japanese position and shows a lack of understanding of the October 3 Six-Parties Agreement, which states:
The DPRK and Japan agreed to make “sincere efforts” to normalize their relations.
Although it requires heavy reading between the lines, this essentially meant that Japan would give North Korea upwards of a trillion yen if the latter came clean on the abductees. Like it or not, for Japan, this is part and parcel of its rights and obligations under the Six Parties Agreement. From the Japanese perspective, it is North Korea who has reneged. I know that Americans think that Japan is nuts for insisting on putting the abduction issue on the Six Parties agenda, and I have been critical of the Japanese government and media on this matter. But it’s a whole nuther thing to ignore it as a fact of life like the NYT editorial does.

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