Sanctions pain or nuclear confidence?

Pyongyang's about-face to six-party talks predictable brinkmanship


Reports from Pyongyang say North Korea has recently put up banners across the capital hailing its arrival as a nuclear state, following its declared underground atomic explosion on Oct. 9

As the banners suggest, experts point out that Pyongyang is unlikely to give up its weapons program in the upcoming round of the six-party talks — a dialogue framework in which the United States, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea have long tried in vain to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear quest.

“The possibility is high that the North will try to use the six-party talks as an opportunity to have (other countries) recognize it as a nuclear-armed country,” said Hideya Kurata, a Korean affairs expert and professor at Kyorin University in Tokyo.

“The North has already proved that it can produce, and now has, nuclear weapons,” Kurata said.

“The purpose of the six-party talks is to denuclearize (the North), but the hurdle is higher now.”

North Korea, which has refused to participate in the six-party talks for one year, suddenly agreed Oct. 31 to return to the talks after a one-day informal meeting with the U.S. and China in Beijing.

Government officials in Tokyo surprised by the North’s sudden about-face say there is no way for Tokyo to confirm the North’s real intentions.

However, the officials cite the two possible reasons for Pyongyang to return to the talks: It has come back voluntarily based on its own negotiation strategy, or it was forced to return due to international pressure threatening more sanctions.

“You can take some different interpretations. That’s what is difficult about North Korea,” a top Defense Agency official said recently. “But no one can tell the definite reason.”

Looking at North Korea’s track record, at least one thing is clear: Pyongyang has a history of making surprise concessions and coming back to the table after intentionally provoking a crisis.

In January 2003, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and said it re-started its reactor the following month. It agreed to join the start of the six-party talks in August 2003 after China reportedly applied pressure.

“North Korea has participated in the six-party talks partly because it could avoid sanctions. While it was engaging in the six-party talks, it didn’t face sanctions by the U.N. Security Council,” professor Kurata pointed out.

Having learned from this, the U.S., Japan and other countries have pledged to keep sanctions in place against the North based on Security Council Resolution 1718 despite Pyongyang’s agreement to return to the six-party talks.

But China, Russia and South Korea still appear to be reluctant to apply full pressure on North Korea.

Pyongyang “may be trying to weaken sanctions or split (the five) by returning to the six-party talks,” said Keio University professor Masao Okonogi, a noted Korea expert.

Those who argue Pyongyang was forced to return to the talks say China might have put strong pressure on the North by threatening to cut oil or food supplies to the reclusive state. The North reportedly imports 90 percent of its oil and one-third of its food from China.

Beijing has denied, at least officially, any move to cut off oil or food to the North.

Others point out that U.S. financial sanctions on North Korea’s accounts at Banco Delta Asia in Macau are driving the North to the edge.

In September 2005, the U.S. designated BDA as an illicit money-laundering bank, claiming it has long cooperated with Pyongyang in a number of illegal activities, including helping put counterfeit U.S. currency in circulation by accepting large deposits of cash from North Korea.

The size of the frozen funds at the bank — $24 million — is relatively small, but the U.S. designation of the bank as a money-launderer seems to have had a serious impact, experts say.

The U.S. has urged financial institutions around the world to voluntarily curtail or terminate shut down businesses linked to North Korea, choking off the country’s few means of gaining precious foreign currency.

Pyongyang has repeatedly and persistently demanded that the U.S. lift the sanctions on Banco Delta Asia, saying it is the only prerequisite for returning to the six-party talks.

The North then made a concession by saying an advance pledge by the U.S. to lift the sanctions would be enough to return to the talks. On Oct. 31, the North yielded further by agreeing to return to the talks after the U.S. said it would set up a working group to discuss the issue of financial sanctions.

“At the heart of the talks (between Pyongyang and Washington) was the U.S. financial sanctions,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official involved in the six-party negotiations.

Whatever the reason bringing the North back to the table, experts expect the next round of talks, starting later this month or in December, to be time-consuming and to yield no quick breakthroughs.

North Korea has been playing the nuclear crisis game since 1993, when it announced its withdrawal from the NPT for the first time.

North Koreans “are viewing this issue from a long-term perspective,” Keio University’s Okonogi said. “I think the North is trying to prepare a basis for negotiations with the next U.S. government after the (President George W.) Bush administration,” he said.