14 February 2007

Déjà vu on the Korean peninsula

After first pushing North Korea to test a nuclear weapon, the Bush administration has settled for a deal it could have had in 2002 or 2005. Does the new policy reflect a change of heart? Or is it merely a way of buying time with one part of the `axis of evil' while seeking to confront another?

14 February 2007
The Hindu

Déjà vu on the Korean peninsula

Siddharth Varadarajan

DRAMATIC THOUGH the latest breakthrough on the North Korean nuclear issue undoubtedly is, its true political significance lies in the anodyne title the participants in the Six-Party talks gave the piece of paper they all signed up to in Beijing on Tuesday: "Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement."

In plain English, that means let us just go back to where we started before and try and get our steps right this time.

For, the `Joint Statement' in question is the equally dramatic agreement reached by North Korea and its five interlocutors — the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan — at the end of the fourth round of their talks on September 19, 2005, for the eventual denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. In that statement, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) specifically committed itself to "abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and to IAEA safeguards." And the U.S. agreed to normalise its relations with North Korea and respect the latter's sovereignty.

The 2005 joint statement, in turn, essentially repeated the broad principles that the U.S. and North Korea had already agreed to on October 21, 1994, under the Agreed Framework.

If, despite these two agreements, Pyongyang felt compelled to take the provocative and irresponsible step of testing a nuclear weapon last October, the fault for this lay almost entirely with the U.S.

First, by gratuitously abusing North Korea in January 2002 for being part of the so-called `axis of evil,' President George W. Bush undermined the fragile political basis on which the 1994 Agreed Framework rested. Later that year, Washington scuttled the core economic bargain that underlay it — providing Pyongyang with alternative `safe' sources of energy such as heavy oil and light water reactors in exchange for the graphite-moderated reactors and plutonium reprocessing facilities that were under construction at Yongbyon at the time.

Once the Agreed Framework collapsed, it was only a matter of time before North Korea resumed work on the nuclear weapons programme it had earlier been willing to abandon. In January 2003, it formally renounced its membership of the NPT. Realising that its strategy of confronting the DPRK might not have been very wise, the Bush administration desperately turned to China for help in restarting a process of dialogue. Under Beijing's chairmanship, the six-party talks process began in August 2003 but it was only when the U.S. negotiator, Christopher Hill, was given a proper mandate to negotiate that the landmark Joint Statement of September 2005 became possible.

This is when hardliners in the Bush administration launched the second instalment of Operation Scuttle.

Even as the Joint Statement was being negotiated and signed by Mr. Hill, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions through the backdoor on the North Korean Government. By targeting the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia (BDA) through which most of Pyongyang's foreign trade was routed, President Bush hoped to be able to drive an even tougher bargain with the DPRK's Kim Jong-Il.

But in the end, the BDA affair proved to be the straw that broke the international non-proliferation regime's back: On October 9, 2006, North Korea exploded a nuclear weapon. The device may have been crude, and the test may actually have flopped, but it certainly managed to destroy what little credibility still remained of the Bush administration's disastrous nuclear diplomacy.

Undeterred, the U.S. sought to use the United Nations Security Council to penalise North Korea for an act that was no more illegal than the nuclear tests India and Pakistan had conducted as non-NPT adherents in 1998. Beijing, which initially went along with the Bush administration's tough approach, realised the potentially dangerous dynamics of what was happening and pulled the plug on Washington. South Korea, too, made it clear it did not support a policy of coercion, leaving Japan as the only other interlocutor to endorse the John Bolton line of naval interdictions and tough sanctions.

If Tuesday's agreement is a direct product of Chinese exertions on both the U.S. and the DPRK, it also reflects the Bush administration's new-found willingness to embrace pragmatism and compromise. Under siege because of the Iraq fiasco and facing mounting international criticism of its bellicose language towards Iran, the U.S. has chosen to cut its losses in the Korean peninsula. For now, at least, because the February 13, 2007 deal requires less initially of North Korea than the earlier agreements did while requiring the U.S. to do more than ever before. This means there are going to be people in Washington who will question the wisdom of the agreement. And some day, they may gain the upper hand.

Normalisation first

As things stand, North Korea has committed to verifiably shutting down Yongbyon within 60 days pending its "eventual abandonment." On its part, the U.S. will ensure the provision of 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil (HFO). Though not a formal part of the deal, Mr. Hill has said the U.S. will also withdraw its financial sanctions against the DPRK within 30 days.

Between the first and second phase of implementation — when North Korea is expected to list all its nuclear facilities and also disable them — another 950,000 tonnes of HFO will be provided as humanitarian assistance. More importantly, in language that has been more explicitly spelt out than any previous accord, the U.S. has committed itself to bilateral talks aimed at moving towards full diplomatic relations. It has also agreed to "begin the process of removing the designation of the DPRK as a state-sponsor of terrorism and advance the process of terminating the application of the Trading with the Enemy Act with respect to the DPRK."

Nowhere does the agreement oblige North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and return to the NPT. The goal of "early denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula" is mentioned as the eventual goal but it is clear that all of the abovementioned steps — including the normalisation of diplomatic and economic relations between the U.S. and the DPRK — are conditions precedent for this to happen.

The contrast with Washington's policies towards Tehran couldn't be more glaring. Purged by the White House following last November's Congressional elections, John Bolton, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, has said the deal "undercuts" U.N. Security Council resolution 1718 imposing sanctions on North Korea. "I think the Iranians have only to follow the same example," he told CNN in an interview.

If Tuesday's agreement is implemented sincerely by Washington — as the 1994 and 2005 agreements should have been — the reciprocal steps outlined provide the Korean peninsula its best shot at peace, stability, and denuclearisation. It has taken the region 60 years to reach this point but the hawks in the Beltway are still looking for ways to renege. The danger is that when the political balance of forces in Washington — and the military balance of forces in West Asia, where the other parts of the "axis of evil" have yet to be neutralised — change, the latest deal might end up going the way of the earlier ones.

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