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Confronting North Korea's Nuclear Ambitions

INSS INSIGHT – Editor Mark A Heller
February 27, 2007 No. 12

Confronting North Korea's Nuclear Ambitions

Emily B. Landau

In early February, the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program finally produced agreement on a plan to begin the process of dismantling that program. The agreement follows North Korea’s decision in late 2005 to suspend its participation in these talks, its test explosion in October 2006, the almost immediate decision in the UN to impose sanctions, and the subsequent return of North Korea to the talks in December.

This could signal the beginning of a positive new dynamic, but many questions remain and the potential for further setbacks is high. The first set of questions focuses on the deal itself: what it covers, what factors have been left out, and what could go wrong. The terms of the deal stipulate that North Korea will ultimately receive approximately $400 million in fuel oil and other economic aid and will, in return, begin a process of dismantling its nuclear program. In the first stage, which will last 60 days, North Korea will freeze activities at the Yongbyon reprocessing facility and will allow IAEA inspectors back in. In exchange, it will receive 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.

Beyond this initial stage, however, the agreement speaks only of a process, to take place over an unspecified period of time. While North Korea will have to continue dismantling its program in order to obtain the full economic and diplomatic benefits, the time that this will take means that setbacks are more than likely. Moreover, North Korean media have been describing the freeze on Yongbyon operations as a temporary, rather than permanent measure, and the agreement makes no reference to a uranium enrichment program that the US accuses North Korea of operating in secret. Finally, the six-party discussions avoided tackling the important question of North Korea’s existing nuclear arsenal.

According to some analyses, strong forces were driving the two major actors in this drama – the US and North Korea – to close the deal at this particular point in time: Kim Jong-Il's dire need for quick cash (some say in order to celebrate his birthday), and Bush's need to show some progress on an important international front. The fact that it was the bilateral US-North Korean talks in Berlin in January that broke the diplomatic deadlock and paved the way to agreement seems to underscore the validity of an explanation that focuses on the bilateral context and the pressing needs of the main actors. But the impact of these domestic needs might also help explain why the agreement is neither rigorous nor comprehensive in its treatment of the larger nuclear weapons issue.

A second set of questions focuses on the way the deal has been received in the US. Ambiguities in the agreement have given rise to strong differences of opinion and considerable confusion, which portend additional pitfalls. For example, Democrats are claiming that the deal is actually a reprise of the agreement secured by President Clinton in 1994 and, moreover, that it could have been achieved in 2002, when North Korea’s plutonium stockpiles were smaller and less dangerous. Others – most notably John Bolton – attack the deal from the other side. They claim that the concessions made by the US today undercut the sanctions that the US worked so hard to conclude only four months earlier.

A third set of questions has to do with the strategy being pursued: was there any clear method to the negotiations that, for example, guided decisions on the relative weight of carrots and sticks, or was the process simply a series of ad-hoc decisions in response to unfolding events? While these questions deserve much closer scrutiny, a quick review of developments over the past four months lends strong support to the conclusion that steps were taken on an ad-hoc basis, with little attention given to method or long-term strategy.

The overall approach taken on North Korea also raises questions about the implications of this process for strategies to confront other determined nuclear proliferators, notably Iran. Although the North Korean negotiations lacked a well thought-out strategy and produced an agreement fraught with risks of further setbacks, they nevertheless produced a deal that North Korea is interested in. And if the agreed process continues to develop positively, North Korea may be persuaded to give up its nuclear capabilities. However, there is at this time little to indicate the kind of deal that might persuade Iran to accede to the same outcome. This merely underscores the point that negotiating strategies must be specifically tailored to specific states and cannot be applied wholesale to all seemingly analogous situations.

In another sense, however, the experience with North Korea may provide a lesson for dealing with Iran. Even though North Korea has focused primarily on its relationship with the US and insists on establishing direct, bilateral ties, its actions are ultimately being dealt with in a regional framework, with attention to regional realities and relations. Japan was most reluctant to shoulder its burden of aid to North Korea because of the still-unresolved issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea years ago. Consequently, improvement of bilateral Japanese-North Korean relations was worked into the deal. China had to be convinced that its interest in a non-nuclear North Korea was paramount, after which it played an active and important role in hammering out the agreement. North Korea's relations with South Korea are also a central concern, and South Korea's president has said that the deal might finally lead to a permanent peace agreement between the two. Thus, regional relations are clearly at the heart of the matter, and the political ramifications of a nuclear deal in the region may go well beyond the nuclear issue as such.

Regional relations are even more salient in the case of Iran's nuclear program, which Iran itself views as a means to enhance and consolidate its regional hegemonic goals. In light of the fear that this engenders in the region, the need to address the challenge Iran presents in a regional framework could emerge as an important component of any lessons learned from the process of dealing with North Korea.


INSS Insight is published
through the generosity of
Sari and Israel Roizman, Philadelphia

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