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Real test looms for N Korea

By Aidan Foster-Carter
Korea analyst

North Korean nuclear reactor at Yongbyon (2002 file pic)
North Korea is meant to shut down and seal its nuclear programme
North Korea has missed another nuclear deadline.

Under a deal reached in February 2007, the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-il had agreed to do two things by December 31: disable its Yongbyon reactor site, and provide a full declaration of all its nuclear activities.

But the year ended with work still incomplete at Yongbyon - and stony silence from Pyongyang.

The two Ds are different. Yongbyon was already closed down since July, and the US team supervising its disabling reported full local cooperation.

North Korea has evidently decided to sacrifice these ageing facilities - a cause of concern for almost 20 years - now that they have done their job and given Kim the bomb, as seen in October 2006's small nuclear test.

Deja vu is unavoidable. Under the Clinton-era 1994 US-North Korea Agreed Framework, Yongbyon was sealed - but not disabled - until late 2002, when the Bush administration accused North Korea of running a separate covert nuclear programme based on highly enriched uranium (HEU).

In an escalating row, North Korea expelled International Atomic Energy Agency monitors and restarted the site, producing more plutonium and so enabling 2006's nuclear test.

Six party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme
Six nations have held lengthy talks on N Korea's nuclear programme

Disabling Yongbyon now - with full dismantlement as a future final stage - is meant to ensure no repetition by putting it beyond use (to borrow a term from Northern Ireland).

The current delay seems mainly technical. To extract and remove some 8,000 fuel rods at this decrepit facility simply could not be done safely by year-end.

However, there are now hints that recently Pyongyang has slowed the process due to reported dissatisfaction with what it is - or is not - getting by way of rewards for its co-operation.

This puzzles the other five nations involved in the six-party process - China, the US, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Most have sent heavy fuel oil and other energy aid, as an agreed quid pro quo.

Only Tokyo refuses, as it still demands a full account of the fate of Japanese abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

Pyongyang regards that issue as closed, and relations are at rock bottom.

North Korea also wants to come off the US State Department's list of countries accused of supporting terrorism, and an end to long-standing US sanctions.

Both were specified in last February's breakthrough, but the US reckons Mr Kim has not yet done enough.

While Japan opposes any delisting unless the abductions are cleared up, Washington would not let that objection be a deal-breaker if all else were going smoothly. But it is not.

Three cruxes

The real problem is the nuclear declaration. At least three cruxes may be holding this up.

One is the North's alleged enriched uranium programme. Though the US is now unsure how far this had got, it has proof of purchases from Pakistan's rogue nuclear entrepreneur Dr AQ Khan.

Those transactions need explaining.

A new worry is the Syrian connection. In September Israel bombed a mystery facility there, widely rumoured to involve nuclear cooperation with North Korea (though both deny this).

With nuclear proliferation to the Middle East a double red line for the US, Washington has to know the full truth on this - and be absolutely assured there will be no future repetition, anywhere.

Above all, there is the $64,000 question: how many bombs and how much plutonium does Mr Kim have, where are they, and will he give them up as did Libya's Muammar Gaddafi?

Coming clean

On each of these three issues there is a clash of systems.

Kim Yong Il
The North Korean leader has used nuclear arms as a bargaining chip

North Korea is a pathologically secret state, even on everyday matters.

Coming clean simply does not come naturally.

And nuclear weapons are Mr Kim's sole trump card.

Unlike Mr Gaddafi, he has no oil or other resources to parlay.

The Libyan route is hugely risky for him.

Military hardliners in the Korean People's Army (KPA) would see it as surrender.

With Mr Kim turning 66 in February and no successor in place, any wrong move could cause political turmoil in Pyongyang.

George W Bush's problem is different.

He is desperate to leave office with a foreign policy success to balance Iraq and Afghanistan, hence last year's U-turn to engage North Korea.

But any deal has to be credible to a hostile Congress, and Republican hawks who remain deeply suspicious of a regime which Mr Bush once notoriously called part of an "axis of evil."

No more Bart

Hence heavyweights like Henry Kissinger have been wheeled out to meet North Koreans in New York, reinforcing the message stressed by the tireless chief US negotiator, assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill.

US chief nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill
Mr Hill is one of the few US officials in direct contact with Pyongyang

But personal rapport may not be enough.

Mr Bush even sent Mr Kim a direct letter, urging timely fulfilment of obligations already agreed to.

The point they are all emphasising is that what might be called North Korea's stock, Bart Simpson riposte - nobody saw me/didn't do it/can't prove a thing - will not wash this time.

On uranium enrichment, on Syria, on the nuclear stockpile - on all these the US and others need more than some pro forma story.

This has to be the real deal, or the six-party process becomes a charade.

What if Pyongyang stays silent? The process can brook a certain amount of delay.

Yongbyon's closure last year was three months late, owing to the complexities of unwinding a disagreement over a bank.

Similarly, a couple of months' technical hitch in disabling Yongbyon is no problem.

But the nuclear declaration is another matter.

By February or March, silence or recalcitrance from Pyongyang will put the other five on the spot.

By then, too, South Korea will have a new president: Lee Myung-bak, who takes office on 25 February after his landslide win in December's election.

A moderate conservative, Lee plans to strengthen ties with the US.

Unlike his liberal predecessor Roh Moo-hyun, Lee says he will make Seoul's aid to the North conditional on full nuclear compliance.

Back to the future

That could alter the balance in the six-party process. Initially, an "axis of carrot" troika - China, Russia and South Korea - offset a hardline US and Japan, before Mr Bush's switch to engagement left Tokyo isolated.

Engine drivers pose in front of the cargo train before it departs for North Korea at the Dorasan station in Paju, on 11 December 2007
A train link was recently opened between the two Koreas

But if Pyongyang is defiant, the US, Japan and South Korea may all resume their traditional role as sceptical if not hostile, ranged against China and Russia too playing their old Cold War parts as Mr Kim's big brothers and (albeit reluctant) defenders.

A year hence, regime change in Washington will add a further twist.

Mr Kim may procrastinate in hopes of a Democrat victory, as he did in 2004 hoping John Kerry would defeat Mr Bush.

But he is mistaken if he imagines this would bring a softer US line.

As so often before, in theory the ball is in North Korea's court.

But if Mr Kim refuses or tries to fudge his nuclear declaration, that lobs the problem back to his interlocutors.

At the end of the day, none of them - not even a tetchy Japan - is in any mood or position to back up hostile words with deeds.

Unless China finally loses patience, a nuclear North Korea may be here to stay - for as long as Mr Kim and his rebarbative regime survive.

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



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