Thursday, November 29, 2007

Introducing the "North Korea Nutshell"

North Korea remains one of the most important challenges in nonproliferation today. As such, Nukes of Hazard is unveiling a brief weekly recap of events in and around North Korea called the “North Korea Nutshell,” courtesy of Eli Lewine. Given the large amount of material that could be covered, we invite readers to add anything that we might have missed and, of course, encourage you to chime in and leave comments as well.

Earlier this month, North Korea began working with international experts to disable its nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant at Yongbyon. The agreement reached on October 3rd called for this process to be completed by the end of the year. The “disablement” of these facilities effectively means that it would take significant financial and technical resources as well as the period of over a year to reinstate them, were the situation to regress.

The plan, as laid out in the September of 2005 agreement, is that the initial disablement would be followed by the dismantlement of these facilities following the delivery of heavy fuel oil and progress towards the normalization of relations between North Korea and the other members of the six-party talks (United States, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan).

U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill is currently making stops throughout Asia to confer with the six-party states before the next session of the talks which are tentatively scheduled for December 6-8. Part of his travels will include making his second trip to North Korea to personally view progress on the disablement work at Yongbyon. The negotiating session after this visit will likely be the last round of talks before the end of the year deadline for the disablement.

Of singular importance during these meetings will be the mandated declaration of nuclear materials and facilities by North Korea. There has been much debate over how complete this declaration will be, with many experts believing that the North will leave off the list some or all of its reprocessed plutonium. In Congressional testimony at the end of October, Hill said that a draft list was going to be circulated in the weeks prior to this round of talks, so it seems that this problem has been anticipated and steps are being taken to ensure that the list presented at this round is as complete as possible. We’ll have to wait and see until next week.

While all of this is going on, the North and South Koreans have been hard at work at improving relations between the two countries. This week, each country has sent its Defense Ministers to meet in Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for plans discussed at previous North-South summits held earlier this fall.

As of today, the negotiations are reported to be moving slowly as both parties are having difficulty agreeing over how to set boundaries for a joint fishing area on the western border. This area is a great point of contention between the two nations and has twice escalated into naval skirmishes in 1999 and 2002. The delay is likely to prevent the two officials from discussing necessary security logistics for a railroad project linking the two countries that was proposed earlier this month in a meeting of Korean Prime Ministers in Seoul.

Despite these delays, officials from both sides are scheduled to continue to exchange visits, with the next such visit coming from the head of North Korean intelligence. However, it will be interesting to see how this policy evolves under a new South Korean President, with elections taking place in mid-December.

Another new development this week came with a report by South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper that an American diplomat had been “permanently” residing in the North Korean capital. While it is likely that this individual is serving a mostly technical purpose, helping to facilitate communications between the U.S. experts in North Korea and Washington, the fact that a diplomatic official of the U.S. government is spending a substantial period of time in the North Korean capital is certainly another sign of improving U.S.-North Korean relations.

Finally, for those interested in insight into the future of the North Korean regime, reports have come out claiming that a 66 year-old Kim Jong’il may have finally tapped one of his sons as his successor. Kim Jong’chul, 27, was appointed this year as Vice-Chief of the Korean Workers’ Party’s Organization and Guidance Department. The post is highly influential in the North Korean government and was the same post that Kim Jong’il himself took at the same age of 27, five years before he was tapped to succeed Kim Il’sung. Whether the succession will remain in the family remains to be seen, but this move clearly shows the favor towards to Kim Jong’chul given that his 2 other brothers have yet to receive such important government posts.

Suffice to say, much has changed since our German friends brought us this video a little over one year ago.

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