Can Kim do the right thing?

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — The six-party talks hosted by China on North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program have reached a critical stage, and signs are that while the disabling of the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon is going well, the overall denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula may be in jeopardy.

As a result, North Korea may not meet the Dec. 31 deadline to make a full declaration of its nuclear programs.

The problem is that the United States insists that Pyongyang address allegations that it had a covert program to produce nuclear weapons by using highly enriched uranium (HEU).

This issue caused the collapse of the 1994 U.S.-North Korea accord under which Pyongyang agreed to freeze its Yongbyon reactor. In return, Washington promised to provide heavy fuel oil and two light water reactors. But soon after it came into office in 2001, the new Bush administration accused North Korea of having violated the agreement by establishing a covert HEU program.

Washington then terminated the 1994 accord, halted deliveries of heavy oil and ended construction of the light-water reactors. North Korea expelled inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and began to openly work on a plutonium-based nuclear weapon.

In October 2006 it detonated a nuclear device. Subsequently, North Korea agreed to return to the six-party talks and earlier this year the six parties agreed that in return for economic aid and normalized relations, North Korea would shut down its nuclear facilities and provide a report on its nuclear programs.

Christopher Hill, the American negotiator, visited Pyongyang earlier this month and left clearly dissatisfied with what North Korea planned to put in its declaration. He said that North Korea had “fewer elements than I would have liked to see” in the declaration.

“We have consistently maintained,” Hill said, “that they made some purchases of materials and equipment entirely consistent with a gas centrifuge program.”

The problem is that the U.S. has made charges of weapons of mass destruction before — against Iraq — and those charges turned out not to be true.

The North Korean problem, however, is more complex. Both President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and George Tenet, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, have written books that indicate that disgraced Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan had sold centrifuge designs, parts and even complete units to North Korea, Libya and Iran.

Given such evidence, Pyongyang cannot expect its denials to be believed. North Korea has little choice but to grasp the nettle and acknowledge that it did have such a program.

To entice Pyongyang to do this, U.S. President George W. Bush wrote North Korean leader Kim Jong Il a personal letter, pointing out that the deadline for the disclosure was looming and reaffirming that the U.S. would honor its side of the bargain: remove North Korea from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism and, ultimately, normalize relations between the two countries.

Such a letter is a desperate last-minute attempt to salvage the denuclearization program. It is quite remarkable that Bush was willing to write the letter, since he is known to despise the North Korean leader. But that, too, is an indication of the seriousness of the situation.

Kim is known to crave respect from the U.S. The fact that the president has written him a letter and addressed him as “Dear Mr. Chairman” goes a long way toward massaging his ego.

North Korea’s removal from the terrorism list, culminating in normal relations with the U.S., is what Kim badly wants. That, after all, is why he agreed to denuclearization in the first place.

The question is whether he wants it badly enough to confess and admit the covert HEU program. Kim also wanted good relations with Japan and, in 2002, when then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang, he made a stunning confession: He acknowledged that North Korea was responsible for kidnapping 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, most of whom had since died.

Japan was then supposed to consider the issue settled and normalize relations with North Korea so the two countries could move into the future. However, things did not work out that way. Today, the abduction issue is the most serious problem between the two countries, with Japan insisting that more than 13 people were kidnapped and that relations cannot improve until this issue is resolved.

This experience with Japan may well give Kim pause today. He may well fear that a confession instead of settling the issue could cause the U.S. to be even more obstreperous and demanding.

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator.