Signs of progress on Pyongyang problem

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — What a difference a year makes. Last October, North Korea shocked the world by conducting a nuclear test. This month it agreed to disable all its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and to provide a full declaration of its nuclear programs by Dec. 31.

The agreement, announced Oct. 3, is part of a series of actions being taken to implement a joint statement — agreed to in September 2005 by the United States, China, Japan, Russia as well as North and South Korea — under which Pyongyang agreed to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula in return for economic aid and normalized relations, particularly with Washington and Tokyo.

Implementation of the 2005 accord was delayed largely because Washington accused Pyongyang of money laundering. As a result, $25 million in North Korean funds were frozen in Macau.

While the U.S. thought returning the funds would be relatively simple, it took months, delaying implementation of the first-phase accords under which North Korea shut down the Yongbyon nuclear reactor in return for 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil and its own $25 million.

The second-phase accords, which call for the disablement of nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, look pretty straightforward. However, when dealing with North Korea, one can never be sure what obstacles may arise.

Last Friday, North Korea’s official news agency criticized U.S. President George W. Bush for calling Pyongyang one of the world’s “brutal regimes,” saying the remark hurt efforts to build mutual trust to resolve the nuclear dispute.

Previously, Pyongyang had taken umbrage when Bush said North Korea was part of an “axis of evil” and when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called it an “outpost of tyranny.”

Since the president’s remarks were delivered at the United Nations before the Oct. 3 agreement, however, it appears unlikely that they will impede implementation of the accord.

Of more immediate concern is a suspected link between North Korea and a possible Syrian project to develop nuclear weapons. Israel conducted an air attack on Syria last month and there are reports that the target was a partly constructed nuclear reactor being built with North Korea assistance.

If such reports should be verified, they would furnish proof that Pyongyang has been engaged in the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology. This is specifically barred in the Oct. 3 accord, which says that North Korea “reaffirmed its commitment not to transfer nuclear materials, technology or knowhow.”

At an on-the-record briefing Oct. 3, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Christopher Hill, asked about North Korea and Syria, responded: “You can assume that we discuss these issues of continuing concern and we have received, obviously, assurances and pledges.”

In return for disablement of the Yongbyon facilities, North Korea expects more than economic aid — it wants to be removed from Washington’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

The U.S. appears prepared to do so as long as North Korea fulfills its part of the bargain. However, there is an extraneous factor — Japan. Tokyo has insisted that the U.S. not remove North Korea from the list of countries that support terrorism until Pyongyang provides to Tokyo’s satisfaction an accounting of all Japanese kidnapped by North Korea in the 1960s and 1970s.

This was the position taken by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. And last week the government of new Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda decided to extend sanctions against North Korea by another six months, to mid-April, to keep pressure on Pyongyang on the abduction issue. North Korea insists it has already made a full accounting.

If the U.S. reneged on its agreement to remove North Korea from the terrorism list after that country has agreed to disable its Yongbyon facilities and declare its nuclear programs, the whole denuclearization project would be put in doubt.

Another problem is how North Korea will handle the American accusation that it has a covert program to use highly enriched uranium to make nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang has publicly denied such a program, but the U.S. insists that it be given clarity on the uranium issue and, as Hill said, “we’re not going to pretend the issue doesn’t exist.”

Thus the next few months is a delicate period for both North Korea and the U.S. If both countries successfully negotiate the potential pitfalls, then the outlook will be much brighter as diplomats of the six countries focus on the toughest task of all: how to get North Korea to give up the nuclear weapons it already has.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.