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Page last updated at 18:59 GMT, Saturday, 14 April 2007 19:59 UK

Analysis: N Korea deadline passes

North Korean flag flies at the embassy in Beijing, China
A deadline for North Korea to shut its reactor has come and gone
As North Korea misses a key deadline to shut down and seal its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, Korea expert Aidan Foster-Carter explains why Pyongyang's prevarication has not provoked a stronger reaction.

Two months ago, hitherto comatose six-nation talks - both Koreas, China, the US, Japan and Russia - on the North Korean nuclear issue suddenly sprang to life.

A joint statement on 13 February created five separate working groups on various aspects, including more broadly towards diplomatic relations between North Korea and both the US and Japan.

Better yet, a previously on-off process (often more off than on) suddenly gave itself tight deadlines. The working groups were each to meet within a month, and duly did.

Above all North Korea committed to "shut down and seal for... eventual abandonment" its main nuclear site at Yongbyon within 60 days, i.e. by 14 April. Significantly, North Korea's own news agency called this closure a "temporary suspension".

In return, Pyongyang was promised aid equivalent to 50,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil (HFO), with a further 950,000 tons to follow once all its nuclear activities were fully declared and disabled.

Sceptics who doubted if Kim Jong-il would keep his word now feel vindicated. The date of 14 April came and went with no sign of Yongbyon being shuttered.

Yet US and other reaction was scarcely stronger than mild dismay and cajoling.

Washington's chief negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, merely accused North Korea of acting "lethargically" and warned that "[waiting] another month is not in my constitution".

Money mess

This low-key response reflects egg on Washington's face.

While not formally part of the 13 February agreement, the US had undertaken to unblock North Korean accounts worth $25m (13m), frozen since September 2005 in a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia (BDA).

The pace may be glacial, yet the US has in effect now joined China, South Korea and Russia in believing that process is progress

Effecting this release proved technically complex - only on 11 April was it completed.

But on 13 April North Korea's foreign ministry said it had yet to confirm the funds' release, and would act on Yongbyon only "when the lifting of the sanction is proved to be a reality".

The BDA affair is a puzzle all round. North Korea had long been suspected of crimes like money laundering and even counterfeiting.

Yet for the US to prioritise this when it did - just as the six-party talks had arduously reached an agreement on principles - looked like a neo-con bid to torpedo engagement.

It certainly had that effect, causing a hiatus of over a year.

Pyongyang steadfastly refused to discuss nukes until it got its money back. Oddly too, despite a long investigation the US treasury department never published its evidence.

US U-turn

For Washington to cave in now - clumsily but completely - undercuts its earlier insistence that sanctioning BDA was a purely criminal matter with no political motives.

Christopher Hill, US chief negotiator, in Seoul
Mr Hill appears to have been given free rein to make a deal

This also reflects a U-turn in the Bush administration. The Iraq imbroglio has discredited the neo-cons, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has persuaded George W Bush finally to try engagement with at least one member of the "axis of evil".

On a tight leash before, Christopher Hill seems now to have virtual carte blanche to cut a deal - as he did in February.

In this utterly changed political context, missing a deadline is hardly a deal-breaker.

By its own standards Pyongyang, while losing no chance to drag its feet, sounds conciliatory.

After a recent visit - in a US military plane, no less - Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico, Democrat presidential hopeful and negotiator with the world's tough nuts - said North Korea had assured him it will invite back inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), expelled in 2002, within a day of getting its BDA monies back.

All this gives Pyongyang considerable leeway. Kim Jong-il may infer he has nothing to lose from a further week or two's delay.

More prolonged prevarication would irritate the US and - perhaps more importantly - China, which hosts the six-party process as well as being North Korea's main trade partner and aid donor.

Master tactician

Yet the "dear leader" has risked Beijing's wrath before - above all last year when he tested missiles in July, followed by a nuclear device in October.

Map

A master tactician, while he will play along with the new incipient peace process still at a very early stage - no one is asking him to surrender his nuclear weapons yet - he is sure to spin it out, gambling that none of the other five parties - except, perhaps, a hawkish but isolated Japan - will want to risk jeopardizing this hard-won new agreement.

The pace may be glacial, yet the US has in effect now joined China, South Korea and Russia in believing that process is progress.

This weekend, as his hungry but dutiful subjects perform their choreographed drills for Sun's Day - 15 April, birthday of North Korea's "eternal president", the late Kim Il-sung - his son may conclude that papa would be proud of him.

North Korea is on most counts a failed state. But it has the bomb, and Kim Jong-il can keep the world's sole superpower waiting while he collects his ill-gotten gains, in his own time.

It takes two to tangle. The bottom line is that a beleaguered US has decided not to have a crisis with North Korea.

Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University


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