Tuesday, December 18, 2007

North Korea Nutshell: Cooperation

The theme of the week in the North Korea news scene is cooperation, or rather the lack thereof. This tends to be a rather common factor when dealing with North Korea as their foreign policy can be best described as erratic. Not to say that there aren’t some cold calculations done whenever the North decides to reverse course on something that was thought to have been already decided, but the frequency with which this happens tends to leave most people in the policy community with a certain amount of pessimism towards progress.

Anyway, last week started off well with the famed New York Philharmonic announcing that they had completed negotiations to add a stop in North Korea to their Asian tour. The two day visit will include a performance of both national anthems and some Gershwin and will conclude with members of the Philharmonic offering master classes to North Korean students. In 1959, the orchestra made a similar visit to the Soviet Union and in that case the orchestra helped to begin a process of closer cultural understanding during a time of intense strain between the two opposed nations. It can only be hoped that this visit will similarly help North Korea with beginning the process of becoming more open to the international community.

Things started heading south (pardon the pun) on Tuesday with the North Korean media decrying the actions of the American government as “criminal.” The U.S. had recently deployed some jets and other military related items in South Korea and the North quickly accused the United States of attempting to disrupt the nuclear talks and move the two countries closer to war.

Following this, news began to come out that one of the major holdups in the release of North Korea’s nuclear declaration was a refusal on their part to admit anything related to a suspected uranium enrichment program. Arms Control Today had an insightful piece on this revelation, and their sources revealed that the North was claiming that special aluminum tubes they had purchased from Russia were for non-nuclear purposes. They also denied ever purchasing centrifuges from the A.Q. Khan network, a fact contradicted by the account of exactly such a sale occurring in the autobiography of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill has stated to Congress and the press many times that he will not accept any declaration that does not clearly outline exactly what has gone on involving these purchases. As the end of the year deadline looms ever closer, this point, along with the information pertaining to plutonium production, will serve to either make or break this current diplomatic effort.

Not wanting to be left out of the process, Congress decided that this would be a good time to weigh in on North Korean diplomacy. On Tuesday, a small group of Senators led by Sam Brownback submitted legislation requiring a wide range of activities North Korea must complete before the U.S. Senate would agree to remove them from the terror list. Given that almost none of the provisions in the legislation represent points from any of the agreements reached at the international 6-Party talks, the chance of North Korea agreeing to such demands is somewhere between slim and none. So far, this legislation has received little support, but it’s a sure sign that there will be at least some of a fight after North Korea meets its obligations and the time comes for the Senate to move on the delisting.

In what could be called a rather interesting coincidence, the Congressional Research Service issued a report on Tuesday claiming links between the regime in Pyongyang and Hezbollah and the Tamil Tigers. The report points to French and Israeli sources that state that they have evidence of both training and material support to Hezbollah beginning in the 1980s. It also mentions Japanese sources that claim similar actions with regard to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. If the findings in this report are validated and begin to gain traction in the policy debate, there could be dire consequences given how unlikely it would be the U.S. could justify removing North Korea from the terror blacklist.

And just to prove that North Korea deserves its “Most Eccentric Nation” status, three largely positive events also taken place last week. First, after defense talks between North and South Korean ministers ended successfully, the first freight cars began running between the cities of Munsan in the South and Bongdong in the North. The 10-mile rail line will improve material transports to and from the joint North-South Gaeseong Industrial Complex, a project that involves South Korean investment in heavy industry using North Korean labor. This project represents the first of many transportation projects in the North that likely could never have happened without the softening of their policy of economic isolationism.

Kim Jong'Il also took the time to officially respond to President Bush's letter sent last week. In his reply, Kim essentially reconfirmed that North Korea would meet all necessary obligations as long as the United States kept its promises. While many would not look at this statement and not read much positivity into it, the fact that it once again affirms the North's position of meeting its obligations and moving forward with denuclearization progress should give observers comfort that the process is still on track.

Lastly, following a closed Senate Foreign Relations Committee briefing with Amb. Hill, East Asia Subcommittee Chair Barbara Boxer stated that the Senate would approve funds, including the $106 million already requested, to “support the process” surrounding the 6-Party negotiations. Some observers had worried that this funding may be stalled over concerns of a North Korean connection to a Syrian facility bombed a few months past. But these comments, coming after a briefing on the very latest developments on this and other subjects involving the negotiations, seem to say that negotiations can move forward in the short term without the fear of U.S. Senate putting up financial speed bumps.

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