North Korea inches toward denuclearization
SEOUL » Hats off to Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Christopher Hill! It's not exactly clear what he told (or promised) North Korean officials during his surprise visit to Pyongyang last week -- or if the mere continuation of the long sought after one-on-one dialogue was sufficient -- but the DPRK has finally agreed to begin the process of shutting down its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, as promised in the Feb. 13 Six-Party Talks "action for action" denuclearization agreement.
True, North Korea still had to be bribed to honor its promises, but in a refreshing twist, this time it was bribed with $25 million of its own money, tainted though it may have been, via the release of frozen assets from Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macao.
Hill, ever the optimist, is hopeful that the first phase of the Feb. 13 agreement -- the International Atomic Energy Agency-monitored shutdown of all the Yongbyon facilities in return for "emergency energy assistance" equivalent to 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil -- can be accomplished "probably within three weeks" and that the second phase -- which includes the declaration and dismantlement of all nuclear facilities in return for an additional 950,000 tons of fuel oil or equivalent in aid -- will still be realized by the end of the year.
PHASE ONE was supposed to have been completed within 30 days, but the plan was sidetracked by Washington's failure to honor an apparent side agreement -- not contained anywhere in the Feb. 13 declaration -- to allow Pyongyang to recover its alleged ill-gotten gains from BDA. While the transfer proved more difficult than anticipated, thanks to assistance from Russia the money is now in North Korean hands.
While Pyongyang has agreed to proceed with its Phase One commitments, it is doubtful we have heard the last of this "financial sanctions" issue because U.S. restrictions against doing business with Pyongyang reportedly remain in place. As one North Korean warned me, "Lifting financial sanctions is not simply a technical issue of withdrawing some amounts." Permitting full access to the international banking system, North Korean officials have long insisted, "serves as a yardstick showing whether the U.S. is willing to drop its hostile policy." Getting past the "hostile policy" hurdle is likely to take longer than the end of this calendar year and to cost considerably more than the promised million tons of fuel oil.
This is not to demean the significance of this first step --only to warn that additional hurdles will be encountered. Note also that there is no reference to the North's presumed stockpile of actual weapons in the Feb. 13 agreement. It is not clear that this ultimate bargaining chip has yet been placed on the table by Pyongyang.
While some have criticized the release of the BDA funds and Hill's trip as "rewarding bad behavior," they appear a small price to pay for shutting down the Yongbyon facilities and getting the ball rolling. Meanwhile, Pyongyang needs to recognize the visit as the bold move that it was.
HILL'S VISIT should be viewed as a clear demonstration of the Bush administration's sincerity and determination to move the process forward. It is now up to Pyongyang to reciprocate. All too often, conciliatory gestures are seen by Pyongyang as a sign of weakness or as an opportunity to make still more demands. This would be a huge mistake. A failure to proceed at this point with completion of Phase One could undermine Hill's credibility and bring the whole process to a grinding halt.
My guess is that the "shut down and seal" of the Yongbyon facilities likely will take place soon. Pyongyang has little to lose. At any point, it could once again expel the IAEA and restart the reactor and reprocessing facility; dismantlement of the facilities is still many months away. More problematic is the "list of all its nuclear programs" that the North is committed to "discuss" during Phase One (but apparently not actually required to provide until Phase Two).
Washington had previously made it clear that this must include some admission of the not-so-secret (but to date denied) North Korean uranium enrichment program. However, Hill was circumspect on this point upon his return from Pyongyang, noting only that "we discussed the need to have a complete list of all nuclear weapons programs, and I would just say that all means all." Defining "all" is likely to become the next major stumbling block.
Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS and senior editor of Comparative Connections.