The turnaround in the U.S. approach to North Korea over the past year has achieved tangible limits on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities but will not guarantee a final denuclearization in the near future, an American expert told the Nov. 12 symposium.

It is still questionable whether North Korea has made a strategic decision to give up its nuclear deterrent, said Gary Samore, vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“From North Korea’s standpoint, its nuclear test (in October 2006) forced the United States to back down from its policy of seeking complete and immediate disarmament, and pursue an alternative policy of gradual and incremental disarmament,” Samore said.

North Korea has so far been “able to have its cake and eat it too” by winning energy aid by agreeing to a “reversible” disablement of its nuclear programs, he told the audience.

Under the terms of the February agreement of the six-party talks, North Korea has shut down its key plutonium production facilities at Yongbyon, and the facilities are being dismantled under U.S. supervision — a process that is scheduled to be mostly completed by the end of the year.

What has been promised, Samore said, is not a permanent disablement of the North’s nuclear facilities. “The measures are reversible. This is temporary disablement,” he said as he assessed the measures agreed upon in the talks among the U.S., North and South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.

But he also said the measures appear to be fairly substantial, and that it would take North Korea some time and effort to reconstitute its nuclear capabilities, and resume plutonium production at Yongbyon.

In exchange, North Korea is getting paid 950,000 tons of heavy oil equivalent, provided in a mixture of heavy fuel oil plus spare parts for its conventional electricity production plants.

Samore said that the next step in the denuclearization process — for North Korea to declare all of its nuclear facilities and its activities as well as stockpiles of nuclear materials — may not be completed in a short period unless North Korea fully cooperates.

Because of the North’s history of lying about its nuclear program, “it will be difficult to accept its initial declaration (to be issued shortly) at face value,” he said. Suspicions will linger whether Pyongyang will try to hide some of its plutonium stockpiles, whether it will fully acknowledge its secret uranium enrichment or whether it will declare the suspected export of its nuclear program, he pointed out.

But assuming that the declaration process is completed, it is unlikely that the next stage — the permanent dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, and elimination of its stockpiles of fissile materials and nuclear weapons — would be finished during the remainder of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, Samore noted.

Samore pointed out that final denuclearization is linked to broader and more complicated political issues, such as normalization of Washington-Pyongyang ties and the signing of a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War.

“Washington insists that it will not normalize relations or sign a peace treaty as long as North Korea has nuclear weapons while Pyongyang says normalization and a peace treaty are necessary to end ‘hostile relations’ with the U.S. so it can afford to give up its nuclear weapons,” he said.

The obvious compromise, he said, will be a parallel process that ends at a simultaneous result in which denuclearization, normalization and peace treaty all happen at the same time. “That’s a very complicated symmetry and delays in any one process could easily delay completion of the others,” he added.

Ultimately, Samore said he doubts that North Korea has made a strategic decision to give up its nuclear program because it has viewed it as vital for the survival of the regime.

“From Pyongyang’s viewpoint, the ideal scenario would be to retain a small nuclear capability while benefiting from improved political relations with the U.S. — to counterbalance China — and expanded economic assistance — especially from South Korea,” he said.

“North Korea will try to delay as long as possible the choice between giving up its nuclear deterrent on the one hand, and its desire for economic and political benefits on the other.

“The challenge for the U.S. and its six-party partners is how to pursue an incremental and gradual strategy that does not undercut the ultimate objective of disarmament,” Samore said.

“The more benefits we give North Korea to take limited steps to reduce its nuclear capabilities, the less leverage we may have to persuade Pyongyang to completely disarm. The longer we accept an incremental and gradual process, the more it may appear that we are accepting North Korea as a de facto nuclear weapons state.”

Masashi Nishihara, president of the Tokyo-based Research Institute for Peace and Security, and former president of the National Defense Academy, also warned against the Bush administration’s incremental approach because it could end up providing benefits to North Korea bit by bit without getting definitive proof that Pyongyang has truly given up its pursuit of a nuclear deterrent.

At the same time, Nishihara said it was basically a positive development that the U.S. took the central role in the recent progress in the six-party talks — rather than host-nation China. It is an indication that Washington is ready to continue to take the lead for stability in Asia, he said.

On the other hand, Nishihara stressed the need for constant policy coordination between Japan and the U.S. over North Korea because of concern among Japanese that Washington could move to remove Pyongyang from its list of terrorism-supporting states despite the lack of progress on the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens.