The latest North Korean denuclearisation deal
NORTH Korea has agreed to suspend its nuclear weapons programme in a surprise and promising recent breakthrough. This could pave the way for the resumption of stalled and deadlocked talks and a possible lasting nuclear disarmament deal with the stealthy, distrustful, paranoid and enigmatic regime in North Korea.
The announcement of the latest agreement was made on February 29 simultaneously in Pyongyang, North Korean capital, and Washington, DC. The statement was accompanied by pledges of resumption of US food aid, something that a frantic and despondent North Korea desperately and urgently needs.
In this country and elsewhere in less developed parts of the world, food for work is a familiar programme meant to disperse foodstuff among the poor to prevent hunger and malnutrition. The agreement between North Korea and the United States is perhaps a unique ‘food for denuclearisation’ accord, with the US pledge of substantial food aid, for peace and stability and to forestall starvation and famine in the famished country.
Just a few days ago, both sides were non-committal about the outcome of the ongoing low-key bilateral discussion, third in the recent months, held in China. This latest meeting between US and North Korean officials in Beijing on February 23-24 was the first since the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, succeeded by his 28 year old third son Kim Jong-un in December 2011. The long awaited, keenly desired but unexpected outcome has been a pleasant and welcome development.
‘These are concrete measures that we consider a positive first step toward complete and verifiable denuclearisation…,’ White House spokesman Jay Carney said. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton was a bit more circumspect and reticent. She called it ‘a modest first step in the right direction’, adding that the US still has intense concerns over a slew of North Korean activities.
This evokes a sense of ‘déjà vu all over again’, as the former great American baseball star Yogi Berra was fond of saying. There is a distinct feeling that the world has walked this tense, taxing and troublesome path before. The process and the initial tip-toe steps in the hope of long-term peace, in other words, happened earlier. It did not last long and acrimoniously fell apart with looming danger of North Korea manufacturing nuclear bombs in the foreseeable future.
North Korea has now agreed to the suspension of its nuclear activities and, as a quid pro quo, the US agreed to provide Pyongyang with 240,000 tonnes of food aid in return. The announcement was met with guarded optimism by analysts and diplomats who noted that efforts to defuse tensions on the divided Korean peninsula had seen such false promises before.
There was a similar such arrangement in the past. It may be useful to look at the background and the past occurrences to the stop-pause-start-go nature of international talks and persistent efforts aimed at ending North Korean nuclear ambitions and attempts to produce nuclear arms.
The multinational negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear programme involve six countries: South Korea, China, the US, Russia, Japan, and North Korea itself. China is the perennial host of these talks perhaps because the leaders and top brass of the shadowy government do not feel at ease elsewhere.
In September 2005, after two years of on again off again talks, meticulous deliberations and painstaking give and take, deliberate and delicate haggling and wrangling, North Korea had agreed to a landmark treaty to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for economic aid and political concessions.
Implementation of the deal, however, proved very intricate, cumbersome, and frustrating. Talks repeatedly broke down. Early squabbling involved the timeline and schedule for executing the various stages of the deal and the sequence of North Korea and its negotiating partners, primarily the US, taking specific steps.
North Korea apparently was in no mood for a long drawn out and protracted diplomatic process of arriving at an amicable settlement about these issues. In October 2006, with talks at an impasse, it conducted its first nuclear test. The UN responded with strict sanctions. Talks resumed three months later.
They stalled again over the issue of $25 million in North Korean funds frozen in a bank in Macau because of UN imposed sanctions. Once the funds had been released, the talks restarted once more.
In mid 2007, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors were permitted to visit North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor, main source of country’s plutonium, for the first time since 2002. Due to progress in the negotiation, North Korea shut the reactor down in July 2007. The US made a pledge to take it off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, part of so called ‘nexus of evil’, the term coined by the former president George Bush, Jr.
Dismantling of the reactor began and North Korea started handing over details of its nuclear programme. In a symbolic gesture, it blew up the cooling tower at Yongbyon in mid-2008. But the talks again came to a standstill over the issue of how the US and others would confirm that information North Korea had provided was correct and complete, particularly on the issue of uranium enrichment.
Sort of in retaliation, North Korea soon carried a test of the type of long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Then in April 2009, the country formally pulled out of the six-party talks and conducted its second nuclear test in May 2009. After prolonged attempts and efforts to restart the negotiations for a year and a half to no avail, North Korea revealed in November 2010 that it had an advanced uranium enrichment facility.
To make matters worse, tensions on the Korean peninsula rose to a fever pitch following the alleged North Korean sinking of a South Korean naval warship in March 2010, with the loss of 46 lives. Ties were further strained in November 2010 when North Korea shelled a border island, killing four South Koreans.
Despite the major hiccups and ongoing tension, contacts re-emerged between the US and North Korea in July 2011, aimed at restarting the stalled six-nation talks. Less than six months later, in December 2011, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, died and was succeeded by his son, the young and inexperienced Kim Jong-un.
Then on February 29, following two more rounds of talks, North Korea announced it had agreed to suspend nuclear activities as a sudden burst of hope and expectations. It also declared that it was placing a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests. That in nutshell is the description of the background and sequence of events preceding the latest disarmament agreement. The move was welcomed by South Korea, the US and Japan.
There still seems a nagging suspicion among the US, South Korea and allies that North Korea may have additional hidden sites for uranium enrichment even though North Korea’s latest announcement, suspending the enrichment program and missile tests, appears to mollify some of their enduring concerns.
Now the vital question is when the six-party talks will resume to work towards a long-term foolproof pact, acceptable to both sides, which would ensure that North Korea would not again revive the nuclear programme under one pretext or the other, or because of misunderstanding and lack of mutual trust.
China has consistently called for the talks to resume, while Japan has called for greater regional co-operation to tackle the issue. South Korea has welcomed North's suspension of nuclear activities; it has consistently said talks cannot resume until the issue of the sunken warship, Cheonan, has been addressed. It also wants North Korea to take responsibility for the November 2010 shelling.
As for North Korea, it urgently wants the pledged economic incentives and political concessions. Since late 2010, it has repeatedly called for the talks to resume. Washington, as mentioned earlier, is to provide Pyongyang with food aid it desperately needs in exchange for its denuclearisation.
Some experts argue that North Korea will never totally give up its nuclear capability because the impoverished and secluded regime has few other trump cards and almost no other bargaining chips to finagle anything out of South Korea or western powers. It is in a way like the Bangladesh trump card of transit to India, which this country has already surrendered to the big neighbour without, unfortunately, getting anything significant or even tangible in return.
There are still reservations and trepidations and some questions. The most crucial of which is, will the Korean peninsula as a result of the recently announced agreement slowly but surely move away from possible nuclear confrontation and follow the path of peace and tranquillity. Or, will the pattern of periodic hope and despair and on-again and off-again talks will return again.
North Korea is believed to have enough plutonium to make about six bombs, but may not yet have developed the sophisticated ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The second nuclear test, however, added to suspicions that the North is moving closer to becoming a full fledged nuclear-armed state.
We just have to come to the oft-repeated and uncertain and not so bold or original conclusion that only the subsequent sequence of events, commitment of the two sides, honest, genuine and upfront negotiations will dictate the future course of events. And only time will tell the prospects and effectiveness of the possible eventual final agreement.
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