[The Korea Herald] Is North Korea closer to denuclearization?

On February 29, 2012, North Korea cut a deal with the United States for food aid in exchange for a halt to uranium enrichment. Despite hopeful speculation from some North Korea watchers that the country could be moving away from the pursuit of nuclear weapons, the agreement would ultimately be scrapped just six weeks later when the regime attempted a satellite launch widely seen as a covert missile test. — John.

By John Power

The start of the month saw a headline-making development in the decades-long effort to get North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons program. In exchange for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid, North Korea agreed it would suspend nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and uranium enrichment at its Yongbyon facility, and allow the return of the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

The response to the deal from many here and in the U.S. was favorable but tinged with caution ― unsurprising, considering the history of false dawns for North Korean denuclearization. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton summed up the mood with her opinion that the deal was only “a modest first step in the right direction.”

Among the many unconvinced of the North’s sincerity is professor Kim Yong-soon of Yonsei University’s Institute of East & West Studies.

“The move by the North Koreans to accept the latest deal seems to be for two reasons: one is to buy time for the completion of their regime transfer, and two is for economic reasons,” Kim told The Korea Herald.

“Of course these two reasons are intertwined in that only some sort of economic stability will ensure a smooth transfer of power as well as its completion. Only time will tell, but as of now, there seem to be no indications as to suggest that this deal is any different (from previous promises to halt its nuclear activities).”

This combination of two satellite images provided by DigitalGlobe shows on the left, construction at the nuclear complex in Yongbyon, North Korea, Sept. 20, 2011; and on the right, the Yongbyon complex on Feb. 3, 2012. The Feb. 3 image of the complex at Yongbyon was taken nearly a month before North Korea agreed to a freeze of major nuclear activities in return for U.S. food aid. Senior analyst Paul Brannan at the private Institute of Science and International Security said on March 6, 2012, a turbine building at the reactor that was still under construction in the Sept. 20 image now appears to be externally complete. (AP-Yonhap News)

Song Dae-sung, president of Sejong Institute, a Seoul-based think tank, is blunter in his assessment of the regime’s intentions.

“North Korea’s latest concessions are not sincere. There is no chance that the North Koreans would ever surrender their nuclear development program… In the short run, they hope to win some aid from Washington in exchange for symbolic concessions and demonstrated willingness to negotiate the eventual denuclearization ― this willingness is fake, but it will help for a while,” he said.

Song says that this latest commitment to a moratorium while, in the North’s words, “productive dialogues continue” allows North Korea to have it both ways.

“In the long run, they hope to make a deal about arms restriction, as opposed to disarmament. In other words, they are willing to freeze their nuclear program, if they are paid a hefty fee, and explicitly or implicitly allowed to keep some stockpiles of plutonium and/or nuclear devices. Thus, they will kill two birds with one stone: They will reap the benefits of being a recipient of large aid while they will remain secure from the threat of a foreign invasion or foreign support of a local insurgency.”

The hope remains for policymakers that the North’s concessions could be the stepping stone to the eventual resumption of the six-party talks, which the North walked out of in 2009, shortly followed by its second nuclear weapons test.

Accordingly, Stephan Haggard, director of the Korea-Pacific Program at University of California and visiting fellow at Peterson Institute of International Economics, is more optimistic about the implementation of the latest deal.

“The deal is significant in two ways. Not only does it provide a path back toward the six-party talks; it also suggests that the new leadership is capable of taking fairly bold decisions. They have been trying to come back to the talks, but the U.S. has demanded some prior actions or ‘pre-steps’ before resuming the Six Party Talks. I would be surprised if they took this step and immediately reneged on it,” he said.

While an enormous challenge, Haggard doesn’t see it as inconceivable that the regime could be induced to give up its nuclear weapons entirely.

“The negotiations will not be easy, and the U.S. and ROK will need to address North Korean security concerns and probably provide some economic inducements as well, including some discussion of light water reactors,” said Haggard.

But nuclear armament has proven to be a powerful bargaining chip for the North, one which it is not likely to give up lightly. Last year’s demise of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, after his compliance with U.S. and U.K. demands to end his nuclear weapons program, must surely give the North Korean leadership pause for thought.

“There are two very compelling reasons why North Korean decision makers need nuclear weapons: First they do not want to be slaughtered with their families; second, they want to be able to squeeze aid from the outside world,” said Song, adding that dialogue could never lead to the North’s disarmament.

But, if not complete disarmament, there is threat minimization.

“While I remain doubtful that North Korea is ever likely to negotiate away its nuclear program in its entirety, there is something to be said for limiting or constraining North Korean nuclear capabilities,” said Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the PIIE and co-author with Haggard of a number of books on North Korea. “The recent deal does precisely that, limiting nuclear activities at Yongbyon, and could act as a springboard to negotiations that could result in broader denuclearization measures.”

While Noland is reluctant to attribute the concessions to an unprecedented willingness on behalf of the new North Korean leadership to denuclearize, he nevertheless believes they represent a significant breakthrough.

“What I think that we can say is that the deal means that someone or some group in Pyongyang is capable of making decisions; and that the first decision they made had a conciliatory, and with respect to the volume of food aid, an even concessionary, cast. This development is good news, especially if the alternative would have been hunkering down and doing another nuclear test later this spring.”

Kim believes that in the short term there is little Seoul can do to get the North to disarm, but that long-term strategies should combine accommodation and a tough posture. While the carrot and stick must go hand-in-hand, he says, Seoul and the international community have tended to rely too much or one or the other.

“In the long term, the South has to work to alter the rigid threat perception that North Korea has ― that is seeing the South and its alliance with the U.S. as a real and immediate threat to its survival. Again, this is made more difficult given that the North regime has been using this perceived outside threat to justify its rigid rule over its populace.”

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