Thursday, March 1, 2012
Ron Smith: North Korea comes in from the cold?
In the original agreement, the focus of the international community was on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, based on the production of weapon’s grade plutonium in a reactor at Yongbyon. North Korea pledged to cease this production, to not reprocess spent fuel from the plant, and to cease its development of nuclear weapons. In return for this, North Korea was to receive energy resources, specifically fuel oil, and, in the longer term, help to build up a civilian nuclear power capability. The 1994 Agreed Framework was widely supported, including (financially) by New Zealand.
What happened, of course, was very different. The DPRK stalled on the inspections of its plutonium technology, whilst building up a capacity to enrich uranium, in order to provide an alternative source of fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Eventually, it tested a nuclear ‘weapon’, although there is some debate about the yield that might have been obtained and on the technical sophistication of the device itself, and the extent to which it might have been weaponised. North Korea also tested possible missile delivery systems, to the consternation of its neighbours. As the agreement collapsed, North Korea complained for its part, that the fuel oil, and other aid, was not forthcoming. It also has continued the cross border provocation of South Korea, which has persisted virtually since the end of the Korean War (something I wrote about in these columns in December 2010 – ‘Korea: the war that never left’).
So what makes us think that the outcome of any agreement will be any different this time? All the same elements are present. This time, the focus seems to be on a desperate need for food aid. It has long been known that in the politically and economically dysfunctional North Korean state, mal-nourishment and mass starvation are perpetual problems and this is the kind of aid that the international community will want to give. It is also going to be interested in the implementation of, ‘a moratorium on long range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including nuclear enrichment.’ (World Nuclear News). Such a moratorium would be enormously in the interests of all the local parties (South Korea, Japan, China), for all of whom the continuing crisis on the Korean peninsula is a perpetual worry and for each of whom, each in their different ways, a substantial cost. It might also look to be a very substantial coup, with an important election coming up for the other major player, the United States. And so it would be if it actually happened.
On the other hand, it may be seen by Kim Jong-Un (assuming he is actually running things) as merely a solution to a short-term problem, and much of the aid material may go to feed the troops, and the regime and its supporters. Aid will then simply prolong what is an odious regime and do nothing for regional security, or the problem of North Korea’s support for nuclear proliferation and dubious regimes around the globe (like Syria).
The challenge for the Six-Party negotiators then is going to be, how closely can specific performance on the part of the DPRK be tied to tranches of food or other aid? They could begin with the commitment to nuclear inspections by the IAEA. These should be immediate and unfettered; quite unlike what was recently seen in Iran, where inspectors, actually already in Tehran, were refused access everywhere. If access was refused anywhere, aid, which might be already stockpiled beyond the border, would be withheld, and the whole process would be arrested. To do anything else would be to play into North Korean hands and to set in motion a repeat of the last twenty-five years.
Any temptation to string it out until after (say) an important election should be resisted. There is enormous potential gain through setting relations on the Korean peninsula on a different course, but this must not be allowed to be subverted by short-term political expediency, on either side. It is a long-shot, anyway. The DPRK may not be sincere. It may be looking to solve an immediate problem and give as little as it can. A process of genuine reform must be seen as a threat to the regime and the ruling clique and, to the outside observer, the risk of a repetition of previous experience seems very high. Then again, we could follow John Lennon’s advice and, “Give peace a chance”, keeping a very careful eye on our dodgy partner in the enterprise.
at 4:42 PM