Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Call Me a Skeptic...

...but I'm not overly enthused about North Korea's agreement to return to Six-Party nuclear talks. Both the State Department and the White House are hailing Pyongyang's decision as a major diplomatic breakthrough, which comes just three weeks after North Korea's fizzled nuclear test, and more than a year the DPRK abandoned the diplomatic process.

In reality, Pyongyang had little choice but return to its bargaining table. As we've noted in earlier posts, the 9 October nuclear blast was essentially a failure, generating an explosive yield that equaled between 200 and 400 tons of TNT. That's far below what North Korea hoped to achieve, and only a fraction of the explosive power produced by other "first generation" nukes, such as those tested by India and Pakistan in the late 1990s, and early U.S. atomic bombs from the 1940s. Given its potential plans for proliferating nuclear technology and/or finished weapons, the DPRK needs more time to perfect its nuclear know-how and improve both the reliability and yield of its bombs.

Additionally, Pyongyang was feeling an additional squeeze as a result of its nuclear test. South Korea banned entry by DPRK officials; Japan imposed additional financial and trade sanctions, and North Korea's closest ally (China) began building a security fence along their common border and stepped up inspections of cargo heading for the DPRK. These measures, coupled with tough financial sanctions previously imposed at the request of the U.S., have placed a further strain on Pyongyang's already-bankrupt economy. Going back to the bargaining table, North Korea will likely push for partial relief from these sanctions. Washington is attempting to hang tough, but China may intercede on Pyongyang's behalf; Beijing has previously warned against punishing North Korea too severely.

The DPRK also needs additional help on the humanitarian front, particularly in light of this year's abysmal harvest--even by North Korean standards. Some analysts believe this year's rice crop was the worst in two decades, thanks to recent floods and the country's failed, Stalinist economic systems. With faint rumblings of internal dissent noted over the past year--something virtually unheard of in the DPRK--Kim Jong-il cannot afford further reductions in humanitarian aid, since much of that assistance makes its way to his most important constituency, the North Korean military.

In other words, returning to the Six-Party talks suits North Korea's needs at this particular point in time. If Pyongyang obtains some degree of sanctions relief, sees improvement in its domestic situation, or achieves the required break-throughs in nuclear technology, then look for the North Korean team to quit the talks (again). Diplomats who have dealt with the DPRK over the years will tell you that the North Koreans are shrewd, tough, and exasperating, engaging in talks when it fits Pyongyang's goals. The Bush Administration deserves some credit for sustaining the Six-Party process, and resisting calls for direct talks with North Korea. Those demands will almost certainly come again, perhaps as soon as the negotiations resume in Beijing.

Here's hoping the White House and State Department stick to their guns when the DPRK returns to the bargaining table late this year or in early 2007. Pyongyang's year of bad behavior should not be rewarded with sanctions relief, and beyond that, the U.S. and its partners should have a clear game plan for what they should demand from North Korea in the upcoming round of talks. An immediate--and verifiable--ban on nuclear testing would be a good start, followed by U.S.-led inspections of DPRK nuclear facilities. If--and only if--North Korea meets those conditions (for a sustained period), then negotiators can talk about partial sanctions relief.

Sadly, that won't happen. Pyongyang's return to negotiations is little more than the latest round of nuclear rope-a-dope, the game North Korea has been playing for more than a decade. That's why this so-called "breakthrough" may be illusory, at best, and a year from now, we're likely to find ourselves back at square one on the diplomatic track.

That's the reality of trying to deal with North Korea. But, if it's any consolation, at least the Bush Administration (so far) hasn't signed a dangerous agreement like 1994's disastrous "Agreed To," framework, a deal that actually allowed Pyongyang to advance its nuclear program, and laid the foundation for the recent nuclear test.

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