Thursday, March 13, 2008

North Korea Nutshell: Geneva or Bust

For months now, the U.S. has urged North Korea to submit a declaration that is both complete and clear. The North Koreans have responded by discounting U.S. claims and the frustration in Washington with the delay is becoming more evident as the weeks pass by. This has led U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill to consider some more creative approaches to break the impasse. Rumors have been circulating that Hill was considering trying to separate the controversial issues of the nuclear declaration out of the main issues involving the bomb-making program itself, thereby allowing progress on this latter issue to continue while discussions continue on the former.

The North Koreans have yet to really respond to this proposal until only recently. Several news organizations are now reporting that a special set of bilateral discussions have been arranged for the end of this week in Geneva. Followers of the 6-Party talks will remember that Amb. Hill and his North Korean counterpart have met before in Geneva to resolve the conflicts over the money frozen in the Banco Delta Asia scandal.

Sources that I have heard from on this subject have painted the following scenario for the resolution coming out of the meeting. The U.S. will issue a statement saying that North Korea will be required to provide all details concerning their plutonium production, bomb design and manufacture, work towards a uranium enrichment capability, and anything that may be related to proliferation of nuclear materials to sources outside of North Korea (ie. Syria). However, the issues of past proliferation activities, as well as possible attempts at acquiring a uranium enrichment capability, will be separated from the general declaration to the 6-Party Talks.

Instead, North Korea will issue a statement just to the United States concerning its work towards a uranium enrichment program and any direct connection they have with what went on in Syria, leaving the job of advising the other four countries about this development to the U.S. In this way, North Korea can avoid contradicting previous statements made at the larger 6-Party negotiations while still providing information that will be required for the U.S. to move forward with the process. North Korea has seemed to already indicate their acceptance of this method of progress by admitting to the U.S. that there were North Korean engineers at military facilities in Syria.

It should be noted that it is likely that North Korea will use the term uranium enrichment program in its admission instead of the common U.S. reference of highly enriched uranium. This is important as a highly enriched uranium program intrinsically implies that the North Koreans were looking to develop a second source of bomb-making material. By only referring to the acquisition of materials for low-enriched uranium, North Korea avoids much of the significant embarrassment that has likely prevented it from making this admission up until now.

Up to this point, Amb. Hill has likely been reluctant to make any compromise on the Syria and HEU issues due to the negative reaction this would receive in Congress. Hill will need to maintain significant Congressional support for delisting North Korea from the lists of State Sponsor’s of Terror and the Trading with the Enemy Act. This compromise, modeled somewhat off of Richard Nixon’s famous “Shanghai Communiqué”, allows the North Koreans to finesse their concerns over having to admit that they have lied about their previous activities while still satisfying everyone else’s concern over what exactly North Korea has been up to. The success or failure of this effort in Geneva will, as usual, depend on the degree that North Korea is willing to offer transparency on its activities.

There are several factors that have all likely contributed to the recent decision by North Korea to accept this plan to go to Geneva and I will tick them off below in what I consider to be the order of importance:

  • The determination of the Chinese to not have this issue hanging over their heads as they head towards the summer Olympic Games
  • New South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak, significantly altering South Korean foreign policy, emphasizing aid to North Korea be linked to denuclearization
  • The improvement of ties between the U.S., South Korea and Japan after some serious strains in recent years
  • The U.S. finally making progress in providing promised oil shipments to North Korea
  • Persistence on the part of the U.S. negotiating team to demand a complete declaration and withhold delisting until this takes place
  • The New York Philharmonic (then again, maybe not)

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