Hope for six-party talks lives

by Ralph Cossa

SEOUL — It’s not exactly clear what Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Christopher Hill told (or promised) North Korean officials during his surprise visit to Pyongyang last week — or if the mere continuation of the long sought after one-on-one direct dialogue was sufficient — but the DPRK has finally agreed to begin the process of shutting down and sealing its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, as promised in the six-party talks’ denuclearization agreement of Feb. 13.

True, North Korea still had to be bribed to honor its promises, but this time they were bribed with $25 million of their own frozen assets released from Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macau.

Hill, ever the optimist, is hopeful that the first phase of the Feb. 13 agreement — the International Atomic Energy Agency-monitored shutdown of all North Korean nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in return for “emergency energy assistance” equivalent to 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil — can be accomplished “probably within three weeks,” and that the second phase — which includes the declaration and dismantlement of all nuclear facilities in return for an additional 950,000 tons of fuel oil or equivalent in aid — will be realized by yearend.

Phase one was supposed to have been completed within 30 days, but the plan was sidetracked due to Washington’s failure to honor an apparent side agreement — not contained anywhere in the Feb. 13 declaration — to allow Pyongyang to recover its alleged ill-gotten gains from Banco Delta Asia. While overcoming the “technical issues” created by U.S. financial restrictions proved more difficult than anticipated, thanks to assistance from Russia the money is now in North Korean hands.

But as one North Korean interlocutor announced at an international conference recently, “Lifting financial sanctions is not simply a technical issue of withdrawing some amounts.” Permitting full access to the international banking system, North Korean officials have long insisted, “serves as a yardstick showing whether the U.S. is willing to drop its hostile policy.”

“Proof” of this, as sought by Pyongyang, has included demands for an end to U.S. military exercises in the South, the provision of light-water reactors, a peace treaty, acknowledgment of North Korea’s status as a nuclear-weapons state, and full diplomatic recognition. Getting past the “hostile policy” hurdle is likely to take longer than the end of this calendar year and likely to cost considerably more than the promised million tons of fuel oil or equivalent of total aid.

This is not to demean the significance of this long-awaited first step, but only to warn, as Hill himself has noted, that “we are going to have to spend a great deal of time, a great deal of effort and a lot of work in achieving [our full objectives, that is, the complete denuclearization].” Note that there is no reference to the North’s presumed stockpile of actual weapons in the Feb. 13 agreement. It is not clear that this ultimate bargaining chip has yet been placed on the table by Pyongyang.

While some have criticized the release of the BDA funds and Hill’s trip as “rewarding bad behavior,” they appear a small price to pay for shutting down the Yongbyon facilities and getting the ball rolling. As the State Department has been playing down the significance of Hill’s visit, Pyongyang needs to recognize it as the bold move that it was.

Hill’s visit should be viewed as a clear demonstration of the Bush administration’s sincerity and determination to move the process forward. It is now up to Pyongyang to reciprocate. All too often, conciliatory gestures are seen by Pyongyang as a sign of weakness or as an opportunity to make still more demands. This would be a huge mistake.

As State Department spokesman Sean McCormack rightly noted, we are now at “an important moment in the six-party talks because we are testing the proposition that North Korea has made that strategic decision to abandon its nuclear-weapons programs.” A failure to proceed at this point with completion of phase one could undermine Hill’s credibility — both in Washington and among his six-party partners — and bring the whole process to a grinding halt.

My guess is that the “shutdown and seal” of the Yongbyon facilities will likely take place within the next few weeks. Pyongyang has little to lose here because, at any point, it could once again expel the IAEA and restart the reactor and reprocessing facility. Elimination of the facilities is still many months and many tons of aid away.

More problematic is the “list of all nuclear programs” that the North is committed to discuss during phase one but apparently not required to provide until phase two.

Washington had previously made it clear that this must include some admission of the not-so-secret (yet denied) North Korean uranium-enrichment program. Hill was somewhat circumspect on this point upon his return from Pyongyang, noting only that “we discussed the need to have a complete list of all nuclear-weapons programs, and I would just say that all means all.” Defining “all” is likely to become the next major stumbling block, although it remains unclear whether this crisis will occur before or after the first phase is otherwise deemed to have been completed.

Plans are now reportedly under way for a new round of six-party talks in Beijing, sometime in July, assuming that Yongbyon is verifiably shut down. Then there is the promised ministerial-level six-way meeting involving Secretary Condoleezza Rice and her North and South Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Russian counterparts, most likely along the sidelines of the Aug. 2 ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial meeting in Manila. Rice would be ill-advised to proceed with such a meeting unless all Pyongyang’s nuclear-related programs have been fully identified and discussed by that time.