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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

More on the Freeze: Diplomatic Reaction and US Spin

by and Jaesung Ryu | March 5th, 2012 | 07:00 am

We provided our take on the freeze, including a cautiously bullish interview with my colleague Marc Noland. We also noted that the reaction of the blogosphere was less positive. The 4th International has been worrying that North Korea might go the way of Burma.

On a more serious note, we thought we should check the diplomatic reaction and also some further details on the US and North Korean statements.

We start with the ROK, which we reproduce here in full:

“The Government of the Republic of Korea hails the outcome of the recent US-North Korea consultation in Beijing announced today. The ROK government takes particular note of the fact that North Korea has agreed to take pre-steps to create an appropriate environment for the resumption of the Six-party Talks, as urged by the ROK and the US; and hopes for the faithful implementation of the agreement.

The latest announcement adequately reflects the concrete measures that have been mapped out by the ROK government in close cooperation with the US, such as through summits. With this, a foundation is seen to have been laid for the ROK’s efforts to move forward to-ward a comprehensive and fundamental resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.

The ROK government notes with appreciation the efforts of the US government it has worked closely with; and intends to continue making efforts toward a complete, verifiable and irreversible resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue in cooperation with the members of the Six-party Talks and the rest of the international community.”

Comment. The ongoing alliance problem is coordination: the concern that Pyongyang will seek to marginalize Seoul through direct contacts with the US. In a three-paragraph statement, the MOFAT states no fewer than three times that all measures agreed on were closely coordinated.

This concern is not altogether misguided; the US statement on the freeze did not make any direct mention of North-South relations, which could indeed be interpreted as a slight. However, the ROK statement confirms its interpretation that these are “pre-steps,” which in the initial three-step Chinese proposal for getting back to the talks were supposed to include improved North-South relations. The one interesting nugget is mention of “summits.” Is the Blue House hoping for a “legacy” summit between Lee Myung Bak and Kim Jong Un?

The statement by Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba was more anodyne. But it did explicitly mention that appropriate actions by North Korea could not only get the Six Party Talks rolling but could open the door to “other dialogues between North Korea and the countries concerned.”

The Russians welcomed the nuclear steps by the North but put a pretty positive spin on events saying that the “United States seeks to normalize relations between the two countries.” In a general sense, yes; in the technical sense of diplomatic recognition, we have a pretty substantial distance to go.

The brief Chinese statement continues to press on a speedy resumption of the Six Party Talks. The Chinese have worked this brief very hard, including a visit to Pyongyang by Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Ping last week. Apparently on the agenda, according to China Daily: food aid. Although we expressed doubts on the size of the Chinese program, it is probable that Beijing—which hosted this third round of US-DPRK talks–put at least something on the table to move the deal along.

Yonhap (in Korean) gathered up other commentary from around the globe, and we were particularly struck by Israel’s reaction. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon commented on the bilateral deal during a radio interview saying that “[the North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues] are completely different … Although US foreign policy deserves to be congratulated, it must be remembered that the accomplishments in North Korea are weak and delayed… North Korea already crossed a threshold in their nuclear capability and this is definitely not what we want to see happening in Iran.”

The Washington Post also picked up on the Iran angle. According to the Post, Israel is focusing on the effectiveness of sanctions. Ayalon appears to believe that the North Korean move came as a result of outside economic pressure, to which Iran is less vulnerable. We don’t see it that way. But there can be little question that the North Korean freeze will play into the discussions about Iran and bolster the argument that diplomacy can—at least in principle—generate results.

Probably the most interesting new information comes out of a closer read of a State Department background briefing with two unnamed officials on February 29 and State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland’s March 1 press brief (it was a signal of the effort to lower expectations that the original statement of the deal was issued under her name).

On the food component of the deal:

  • The background brief confirms that the food talks had bogged down over North Korean demands for rice (“They demanded large quantities of rice and grain that could be, in our view, diverted to elites or to the military. They’ve now dropped those demands and agreed to allow our program to move forward as proposed, with an understanding, as always would be the case, that further assistance would be based on verified need.”)
  • According to Nuland, this is not a “food for talks” or “food for nucs” deal.  The two sets of discussions went forward on separate tracks, the two agreements coincided in time, and it was the North Koreans—not the US—that sought to link them. We can imagine why the North Koreans sought such linkage. Absent the provision of food, there were precious few concessions from the US. Given that we believe that the food situation in North Korea remains dire, the issue is at some level moot; the North Koreans need food regardless of the nuclear issue. But the willingness of the US to link the nuclear and food agreements—and particularly if at North Korean request—means that they are in fact linked.
  • However, it does appear that the US is willing to take one small leap of faith: there is no indication that the shipment of food is being held hostage to any of the outlined North Korean actions. According to the background briefers, “what [the US has] proposed is the regular delivery of about 20,000 tons a month over the course of 12 months. The one requirement the background briefers note on the food deliveries is that “that our partner organizations will have to be fully operational – meaning fully in place on the ground with their offices functioning – before the food will begin to arrive.”

On the nuclear component of the deal:

  • The US confirmed that its commitment to the 2005 Joint Statement included willingness to talk about LWRs, but Nuland emphasized that that was well down the road.
  • The background briefing and Nuland press conference confirmed something that puzzled us: the reference in the freeze statement to “disablement.” To remind you, the US statement read that “The DPRK has also agreed to the return of IAEA inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the 5-MW reactor and associated facilities.” (emphasis added) This phrasing suggests full or partial implementation of the agreements struck in 2007 as a precondition for even starting the Six Party Talks, and under IAEA inspection no less.
  • However, the KCNA statement did not make any mention of “disablement,” and rather spoke of much more easily reversible actions (Matthew Pennington of AP caught this in the background briefing too). (“The DPRK, upon request by the U.S. and with a view to maintaining positive atmosphere for the DPRK-U.S. high-level talks, agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at Nyongbyon and allow the IAEA to monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment while productive dialogues continue.”)

For anyone having watched these talks for some time, these subtle differences make you queasy. We don’t have anyone on the ground, so we don’t know for sure what the North Koreans have been doing with respect to the plutonium track. But the core Yongbyon facilities were not fully disabled in 2008 (blowing up the cooling tower was, in our view, a media side show).

The only independent information we have on the status of the plutonium track is the report from Sig Hecker’s fall 2010 trip but several passages are worth quoting at some length on the issue:

  • “The 5 MWe reactor, which is adjacent to the new LWR construction site, appeared dormant…We were told that the 5 MWe reactor is in stand-by status with regular maintenance. We were reminded that the cooling tower was destroyed (June 2008) but the chief engineer was confident that they could the reactor should they decide to do so (my previous estimate was that it would require approximately six months to do so). We were told the fresh fuel, which could be used to refuel the reactor, was still stored in the same warehouse in which I last saw it in 2008 (at the fuel fabrication facility). I was told that there was insufficient time to visit the warehouse.)”
  • “To summarize the status of the plutonium facilities; the 5 MWe reactor has not been restarted since it was shut down in July 2007. The spent fuel rods were reprocessed following North Korea’s termination of the Six-Party talks in April 2009. No new fuel has been produced and the fresh fuel produced prior to 1994 (sufficient for one more reactor core) is still in storage. Pyongyang, has apparently decided not to make more plutonium or plutonium bombs for now. My assessment is that they could resume all plutonium operations within approximately six months and make one bomb’s worth of plutonium per year for some time to come.”

Why is this important? Because if Hecker’s report is correct, it implies that the North Koreans would need to take additional steps in order to “confirm the disablement of the 5-MW reactor and associated facilities.” The background briefers confirmed that this was indeed the US understanding of the negotiation record.

If the DPRK is willing to take these steps, it does still not get at all of the HEU program, stocks of plutonium or actual weapons. But it makes the agreement more significant since it would shut down their ability to generate new plutonium.  That is far from everything, but it is not trivial.