Dealing (and the deal) with North Korea

22 March 2007

Ambassador Han Sung-Joo, Chairman, International Policy Studies Institute of South Korea, speaking at a Policy Dialogue organised as part of the EPC-Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF) ‘Asian Voices in Europe’ series, summed up the current deal on North Korean nuclear weapons as “back to square one” or “better than nothing”. Some even described it as “worse than nothing”.

Despite reports that the weapons issue has been being resolved, the situation is actually getting worse, said Ambassador Han. The agreement has condoned North Korea’s weapons programme and taken the pressure off Pyongyang, by implicitly accepting the status quo provided that no further weapons or plutonium are produced. The North Koreans have only agreed to “disable” their facilities, not to “dismantle” them, and this does not affect the stock of plutonium or weapons.

North Korea had negotiated very cleverly, said Ambassador Han. Recent photographs show North Korean leader Kim Jong Il visiting the Chinese Embassy “as if he were carrying a trophy”. He has also been given the “red carpet treatment” by the US and is credited with bringing peace to North Korea.

The US and North Korea are beginning bilateral talks to normalise relations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) representative has visited Pyongyang, and North Korea has said it will fulfil its promises in return for the unfreezing of North Korean funds worth $25 million in the Macau-based bank Banco Delta Asia.

The deal also has repercussions for other countries in the region, said Ambassador Han, with ministers from Pyongyang and Seoul meeting to discuss South Korea’s economic assistance package to North Korea. However, for Japan, the US turnaround on North Korea was a “seismic shock”.

Moving the goal posts

Washington appears to have “moved the goal posts” to make it easier for North Korea to satisfy the requirements, with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice taking credit for undoing the previous US policy on North Korea which she herself originally designed. In addition, the Banco Delta Asia dispute has now been settled and North Korean funds unfrozen.

This raises many questions, said Ambassador Han. Is the US moving towards an equidistant policy towards North and South Korea? From the agreement it appears so, since the US is preoccupied with Iraq and is not immediately threatened by North Korea’s nuclear weapons, so will treat the two countries with equal weight.

Is the US-South Korean alliance weakening? Again it appears so, as the relationship is cooling on both sides, with a rise of anti-Americanism in South Korea and a more ‘closed’ US approach towards Seoul.

Ambassador Han wondered whether Pyongyang was being allowed to keep its weapons as a way of recognising its status as a nuclear power in the region. He described North Korea’s tactics as “reverse salami”, as it doles out concessions, piece-by-piece on the weapons freeze, reporting and aspects of dismantlement.

Does China accept North Korea’s nuclear weapons as a fait accompli? The Ambassador said that while Beijing would prefer Pyongyang to drop its nuclear programme, it could accept it as long as it did not lead to conflicts with countries such as the US.

It also seems that North Korea is moving towards an equidistant policy towards China and the US, since North Koreans believe the weapons tests demonstrated that their country was equal to the big players in the region, such as China.

The Ambassador said that while it was unlikely that North Korea would really give up its nuclear weapons voluntarily, it will probably play by the rules, since there are elections in South Korea and it does not want to alienate pro-Pyongyang candidates.

The best deal “at the moment”

Leonid Petrov, Chair of Korean Studies, Asia Centre, Institute d’Etudes Politiques, Paris, felt the current deal was the best that could be achieved “at the moment”.

Finding solutions through the Six-Party Talks was like a “jigsaw puzzle”, as combinations of bilateral agreements had to be fitted together to complete the picture. The first of these were the US-North Korean talks in January in Berlin.

North Korea has not had to give way, negotiating from a position of nuclear strength, while Washington’s position has moved 180˚ - it has abandoned its hard-line stance of not talking to North Korea and dropped a number of other issues.

Mr Petrov welcomed any positive engagement with North Korea that would alleviate the suffering of ordinary people and wondered whether in the long term, Pyongyang might be persuaded to move from an “army-first” to a “people-first” policy.

He agreed that Japan had been the “odd man out” in the talks, allowing its domestic concerns about North Korea’s abduction of Japanese to act as interpreters to cloud the bigger picture, leaving it isolated.

In order to continue the recent positive moves, both the US and North Korea should keep their promises and pursue a policy of “enhanced engagement”, including all the parties in the Korean peninsula and North East Asia, to complete the jigsaw puzzle.

Mr Petrov finished on a note of optimism, hoping that the Six-Party Talks might become institutionalised as a body for addressing common regional problems.

Antonio Tanca, Co-ordinator of the Asia Team, General Secretariat, Council of the European Union, believed that the situation was probably worse now than after the 1994 Agreement and the July 2005 talks.

The US attitude has become more flexible, while China’s has hardened, as it saw the North Korean nuclear weapons test as a “slap in the face”.

North Korea has become more forthcoming, which might be the effect of the UN sanctions and the country’s deteriorating food situation. The next step is to implement the agreement, stipulating clearer conditionality, with stricter benchmarks to measure progress.

Mr Tanca said the EU had been “part of the game” before the current crisis, but had not been part of the Six-Party Talks. It plans to re-establish its contacts with Pyongyang, continue providing humanitarian assistance to alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people and support efforts to ensure that the agreement is implemented.

Looking ahead, in the light of US assurances that it has no hostile intentions, Pyongyang might embark on a reform process, and has studied the Chinese and Vietnamese models of economic reform.

Given the ambiguity of North Korea’s position, Mr Tanca felt that the process might be going in the right direction and reluctantly shared the view that the current deal was better than nothing.

Not the US’ finest hour

Patrick Cronin, Director of Studies, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, described the February accord as “not the United States’ finest hour”, since it put the position “back to square one”.

As the US administration was increasingly mired in the Middle East, it had opted for the United Nations’ approach of financial sanctions, which appeared to have persuaded Pyongyang to react positively. However, some hard-liners in the US remain unhappy about Washington giving up the leverage it had over North Korea.

Mr Cronin did not believe that the agreement signalled that proliferation was over - getting an agreement is the easy part, implementation is more difficult, and it could take up to 15 years to complete.

Mr Cronin was concerned about the lack of multinational architecture in South East Asia, and wondered whether the Six-Party Talks could develop into a more permanent framework.