Insights and Analysis

North Korea: Assessing Prospects for Denuclearization

March 7, 2007

By Scott Snyder

This week, DPRK Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan made his first visit to the United States in almost two years. The visit occurred as part of a series of concrete actions foreshadowed in a February 13th “Initial Actions” Agreement as part of the Six Party Talks. That agreement decided specific actions that the United States and North Korea would take in a deal that ultimately promises to trade North Korea’s denuclearization for normalization of relations with the United States, economic benefits, and the establishment of a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula as outlined in a prior Joint Statement of Principles agreed among the six parties on September 19th, 2005.

If both sides are able to achieve this objective, North Korea would be the first state to have tested a nuclear device and subsequently reversed its program. This would be a true breakthrough if it can be achieved. But mutual distrust remains high and the February 13th agreement gives only the initial steps toward this goal. There are many points along the way where the implementing agreement could break down.

The only way to dispel that distrust is through a series of simultaneous and interlocking steps that take both sides closer to the goal. It will be a harrowing journey on a virtually unmarked trail. But the first phase of the journey was spelled out clearly in the February 13th implementing agreement, and Kim Kye-gwan’s visit to the United States for working group meetings on normalization of relations is just one of the actions envisioned to take place by mid-April.

The United States has promised to review the designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and to move forward in ending the Trading With the Enemy Act with North Korea. An “unrelated” step by the United States is that the United States would wrap up an investigation into the Banco Delta Asia, which was alleged to have facilitated North Korean counterfeiting and money laundering activities. The end of the investigation would unfreeze up to US$12 million in North Korean assets.

North Korea has already announced that it will host the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohommed El-Baradei in Pyongyang on March 13-14. It is likely that North Korea will indicate a willingness to bring its facilities at Yongbyun back under international inspections during his visit.

North Korea is also expected to make a declaration of its existing facilities, the thoroughness of which will mark an early test of North Korean sincerity in pursuing denuclearization.Following El-Baradei’s visit, a U.S. delegation led by Christopher Hill is likely to visit Pyongyang for talks following the New York round. Hill’s visit would be the highest level visit by an American official to Pyongyang since that of his predecessor, Jim Kelly, in October 2002, which marked the start of the crisis.

South Korea has already made preparations to send 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil — or the humanitarian equivalent — within 60 days in return for its pledge to shut down and seal the Yongbyun nuclear facility. In return for the permanent disablement of North Korea’s reactor and North Korea’s declaration of its nuclear facilities, the other parties have pledged to provide an additional 950,000 tons of heavy fuel oil or the humanitarian equivalent to North Korea. By late April, a six party meeting at the foreign minister level will be held to review the progress of the parties in fulfilling the February 13th agreement.

As the process of implementation moves forward, a critical question is whether all parties will take their own actions to achieve the objectives of denuclearization, normalization, North Korea’s economic development, and peace. The United States and North Korea are both required to show performance to overcome the distrust of the other side. But if North Korea finds that the pressure is eased, it may balk. Some parties might decide that containment of North Korea’s nuclear program is enough, leaving denuclearization to the future. Or obstacles on human rights or other issues may intervene to make it politically impossible for the United States or Japan to perform according to North Korea’s expectations, in which case North Korea would no longer feel obligated to reciprocate.

Although there are risks that the process will stall, North Korea’s unchecked production of plutonium may be stanched. For this reason, North Korea’s anticipated freeze significantly decreases the likelihood that Pyongyang would have “extra” fissile material to share with others, but only the North’s irreversible denuclearization can be celebrated as a true victory. Progress in the Six Party Talks has spillover effects for the Bush administration’s approach to Iran, as the administration appears to be moving toward bilateral contacts embedded within a multi-party framework. Rather than waiting or doing nothing for two more years, it is worth testing whether a more effective diplomatic approach in both instances-firmly built on international consensus backed by the threat of sanctions against further nuclear breakout-will yield needed progress in redressing the two most serious current threats to the global nonproliferation regime.

Related locations: Korea
Related topics: North Korea


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