Saturday, December 8, 2007

North Korea Nutshell: The Good, The Bad, and the Expected

The last week in news involving North Korea has been full of both worry and cautious optimism. As the careful reader will remember, the next round of the 6-party talks in Beijing was supposed to begin this week, with the topic of the day being North Korea’s draft list of nuclear materials and facilities. The list never came and the talks were postponed accordingly. While some see this as a looming crisis, others point to the fact that when dealing with a subject as important as denuclearization, some flexibility in time tables is required.

North Korea is still under the deadlines imposed by the October 3rd agreement to disable its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and present its declaration. U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill has now promised several times that the list is on its way and each time no list arrived. Compounding this problem are technical issues, which may prevent the nuclear reactor disablement from finishing before the clock strikes midnight on December 31st. During his recent visit to North Korea, Hill found that the on-site team at the reactor at Yongbyon had to handle some issues with removing the 8,000 spent fuel rods from the reactor and that because of this, the time line for disablement activities to be completed would likely extend beyond the end of the year as well.

But this begs the question, what was the purpose of the end of the year deadline? By setting a date, the other 5 nations were putting pressure on North Korea to begin disablement immediately and open discussions as to what a declaration would look like. This pressure succeeded as shortly after the agreement was reached initial experts were allowed into Yongbyon and significant progress has been made. The delay seems to not be a purposeful effort by North Korea but just a matter of safely handling dangerous and decrepit equipment.

The issue of the declaration seems to be another matter entirely. The U.S. is demanding that the North reveal all of its plutonium reserves, its connections with Pakistan concerning uranium enrichment activities, and clear up some of the questions on their connection to Syria. All of these are extremely sensitive issues and it will likely take a fair amount of back and forth discussions, including significant pressure from the other 5 parties, to come up with a document that will at least marginally satisfy everyone. Unless a breakthrough happens in the next week or so and 6-party talks are quickly arranged as a Christmas present to negotiators, we will likely see an announcement by Hill that discussions on the list are “ongoing” and that taking into consideration the North’s positive stance towards disablement the parties will allow the final list presentation to come in early 2008.

However, a slim chance for this deadline to be made remains, courtesy of some adept diplomacy. While making his visit to North Korea, Amb. Hill dropped off a letter personally signed by Bush. The letter, which addressed Kim Jong’il personally, urged the North Korean leader to fully carryout his denuclearization obligations and cited how normalization between the two nations could follow. Although these were already the stated position outlined in previous agreements between the nations, an attempt at personal correspondence between the two leaders is a fundamental shift from where Bush stood earlier in his administration. North Korea has long sought the prestige brought on by such high level contact, so it will be interesting to see if they respond well to this groundbreaking overture.

Back on the subject of the North’s impending declaration, ArmsControlWonk has a fantastic guest post from James Acton of Kings College London. In it, he goes through the nitty-gritty technical details of how inspectors would go about verifying the amount of plutonium North Korea should have on hand. As well, he explains that if inspectors were given a reasonable amount of records and access, they could get fairly close to the exactly the amount of Pu the North should have on hand (which estimates currently place between 50-70kg or nearly 10 bombs worth). I won’t get into more details here, but if you have a nose for the exact science of what is going on with one of the most contentious elements of the declaration I highly recommend you give the post a read.

Finally, while the United States is embroiled in election fever as the primaries move ever closer, the South Koreans themselves had a huge development leading into their December 19th Presidential election. Lee Myung-bak, candidate for the conservative Grand Nation Party (GNP), was cleared of a financial scandal that could have severely damaged his candidacy. When this scandal initially broke it lead some in the GNP to question Lee's candidacy and a fellow conservative, Lee Hoi-chang, announced an independent run that threatened to split the conservative vote and give the Liberal party a chance it likely would not have had otherwise. But the clearing of Lee's name, as well as his decision to announce that he will be donating all of his financial assets (except his $5million home), to charity, leave little room for his opponents to overtake his 20 point polling lead.

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