IDSA COMMENT

The New US-North Korea Nuclear Understanding

March 14, 2012

The very first US-North Korea bilateral nuclear talks held after Kim Jong-Un assumed power has borne fruit. The talks held in Beijing on February 23-24, 2012 were the third in the series; the first was held at New York in July 2011 and the second at Geneva in November 2011. According to the agreement, announced on February 29, 2012, North Korea will halt uranium enrichment at its nuclear facility in Yongbyon, suspend nuclear weapons tests as well as long-range missile tests, and allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to monitor the moratorium in exchange for 240,000 tonnes of food aid from the United States. Subsequently, US envoys met their North Korean counterparts once again in Beijing on March 7, 2012 to chalk out the technicalities, procedures and safeguards “to make sure that nutritional aid for about 1 million North Koreans gets to those who need it most,”1 i.e. vulnerable groups such as children, pregnant women, nursing mothers and the elderly.

The short span of time within which Kim Jong-Un took a critical political and defence related decision is indicative of the fact that the third dynastic transition of power in North Korea has been executed in a systematic manner. It reflects the substantial support of the powerful bureaucratic and military elite to the new leader although what is not clear is the degree of the grip that Kim exercises over the elite. At the same time, the smooth transition is also suggestive of the intricate grid of dependable relationships that were nurtured and woven by Kim Jong-Il to lend both credibility and steadfast backing to the dynasty. Along with laying down the chain of domestic command and control, Kim Jong-Il also enlisted reliable political and economic patronage from China and built up extensive trade relations with Russia.

In retrospect, “the world outside North Korea” did appear “to be more unhinged by the sudden death of Kim Jong-Il than the country he ruled over for 17 years.”2 Kim’s diplomatic and organisational skills are ϋber-Machiavellian rather than the machinations of a “mafia don”.3 For having secured the assistance of two members of the United Nations Security Council – China and Russia, and topped by the US willingness to engage with it, the North Korean leadership deserves a better sobriquet. This cannot be achieved by peddling drugs, counterfeit cigarettes and currency or by nuclear proliferation precisely because the North Korean plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment programmes are still not technically sophisticated or superior enough “to make them an attractive seller”.4

To understand the country’s behaviour requires an appreciation of historical events going back to Japanese colonisation of the Korean peninsula, the division of the country at the end of the Second World War, the mix of personality cult, communist ideological zeal, and the socio-political discourse of Juche (self-reliance) and Songun (Military first) developed by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il, as well as an understanding of “nuclear fetishism” as a “currency for power for states”5. An analysis that ignores any one of these factors is at best an indulgence in creative writing and negligent name-gaming.

The calculations of North Korea and its behaviour are driven by its four core interests: (1) maintaining regime and national sovereignty, (2) retaining its nuclear deterrent, (3) projecting an image of a powerful and an independent nation rather than being a mere satellite of China (4) and, seeking global integration for its economic prosperity by bringing in overseas investment and creating avenues for the export of its rich mineral resources. As the nation prepares for the grand commemorative events and celebrations of the 100th birthday anniversary of its Founding and Eternal President, Kim il-Sung, to be held on April 15, 2012, the leadership wants to present an impressive spectacle of its achievement to the public for securing popular support. Food aid and engagement with the US on its own terms would demonstrate that North Korea is a ‘rising’ nation in the international community.

Coming back to the US-North Korean deal, Glyn Davies, the US nuclear envoy to the talks said that “There was nothing stylistically or substantively dramatically different in terms of how the DPRK were presenting their positions." Then why did the US choose to seize this particular moment to clinch the deal. First, because, for the US the deal meant temporarily quietening at least one defiant nuclear weapons front at a time when President Obama, in the midst of a presidential re-election campaign, is under pressure from Israel to support its more confrontational approach, possibly even a military strike to set back Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions. Secondly, the next leg of the Nuclear Security Summit, an initiative begun by President Obama in 2010 to create safeguards around nuclear stockpiles, components and power plants, is scheduled to be held at Seoul on March 23-24, 2012. A conducive atmosphere on the Korean peninsula is a prerequisite to host 43 heads of state in a capital which is a mere 50 kms away from the Military Demarcation Line that divides the two Koreas. The possibility of some North Korean provocative behaviour was not ruled out especially in the context of the on-going US-South Korean joint military drills, the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. Key Resolve, which began on February 27, 2012, involves about 200,000 South Korean troops and 2,100 US troops and is slated to continue till March 9. And Foal Eagle is a month long joint exercise on a smaller scale between March 1 and 30. Pyongyang has already criticised these joint drills as war preparation exercises aimed at a pre-emptive strike. And for its part, it too held symbolic live-fire drills on March 4 and 5 along its southwestern coast near the Northern Limit Line, the disputed maritime border. Given all this, it was important to eliminate any North Korean outburst by keeping the country engaged in a dialogue.

From the US perspective, in the short term, the deal is a cheap bargain to ensure that North Korea refrains from conducting a third nuclear test or any other missile test. It also showcases President Obama’s “return to diplomacy” approach towards North Korea. This engagement marks an emphatic shift from the previous policy of “strategic patience” which, in the words of Robert Gallucci, was effectively a principle of “essentially doing little or nothing and hoping for the best”.6 One direct and recognisable consequence of non-engagement or “strategic patience” was a steady enhancement in North Korea’s nuclear capability.7 Joel S. Wit, a former US State Department official, had warned that “A U.S. policy based on containment and isolation alone only concedes that North Korea will remain nuclear-armed and that its weapons programs will further develop.”8

In the long term, the consequences will be high if the US ignores the two underlying assumptions behind North Korea’s acquiescence to the moratorium. First, it is acceptable for North Korea not to increase its nuclear stockpile if the compensatory rewards for such restraint match its expectations. Second, the country can always revert to its well-rehearsed game of diplomatic cold freeze, provocations and resumption of nuclear activities till it becomes imperative to reopen talks, a pattern described by Prof. Kung-Ae Park as the “pendulum swing between crisis and diplomacy”.9

In order to maximise gains from this deal, it becomes incumbent for both the parties to strictly adhere to its stipulations. In case of any adverse developments or provocations, it would prove difficult for the US to resist stopping the aid. For example, the September 19, 2005 agreement, called the Joint Statements of Principles, had failed because soon after its signing the US Treasury Department had named Macau's Banco Delta Asia (BDA) as North Korea’s “primary money-laundering concern” and the subsequent US law enforcement action froze North Korean accounts. Similarly, the stalemate over the “Action Plan” signed on February 13, 2007 had developed because the US took samples at North Korean nuclear facilities and sent them outside the country for analysis.

The real test of the latest deal will be when the IAEA inspectors visit North Korea’s nuclear facility and file their report on the moratorium. It has been reported that Yukiya Amano, the director general of IAEA, had said that the UN agency had not yet received specific details of the deal since the agency did not have direct contact with the parties concerned. He noted: "We learned about the outcome of negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea last week. We are now trying to clarify what was agreed" and “we are preparing for a possible return to Yongbyon.”10 He also mentioned that the preparatory work, including identification of what the inspectors would do in North Korea, could take “quite a significant amount of time”. Thus, the new deal is ridden with difficult challenges.

Therefore, this first step is not as “modest” as stated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In fact, it is a mature step and, according to the previous US nuclear envoy Stephen Bosworth, Glyn Davies needs to be congratulated for having struck this deal. The new deal, instead of focusing unrelentingly on the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation (CVID) of North Korea which looks unattainable in the short term, hopes to arrest the further enhancement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. It will be quite a while before CVID negotiations are resumed.

  1. 1. “US envoys in Beijing for talks on completing agreement on North Korea food aid”, The Washington Post, March 6, 2011 available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/us-envoys-in-beijing-for-talks-on-finalizing-agreement-on-north-korea-food-aid/2012/03/06/gIQAkFlLuR_story.html.
  2. 2. Paul B. Stares, “Seize the moment in North Korea,” International Herald Tribune, December 23, 2011, p. 6.
  3. 3. Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “A North Korean Soprano,” International Herald Tribune, March 5, 2012, p. 6.
  4. 4. Ibid.
  5. 5. Anne Harrington de Santana, “Nuclear Weapons as the Currency of Power: Deconstructing the Fetishism of Force,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 16, No. 3, November 2009, pp. 325-45.
  6. 6. Robert Gallucci, the chief negotiator with North Korea during the Clinton administration, said that “strategic patience” amounted to “doing nothing” in a panel discussion hosted by Brookings Institution, “Countering Proliferation: The Challenge of Nuclear Rogues”, on the problems posed by North Korea and Iran, March 2, 2012; the video available at http://www.c-span.org/Events/Brookings-Panel-Examines-the-Nuclear-quotRoguequot-States/10737428722/.
  7. 7. In January 2011, it was acknowledged by the previous US Defense Secretary Robert Gates that within five years North Korea will be not only able to develop a missile capable of hitting Alaska or the US West Coast but also be able to manufacture a warhead small enough to be delivered by an intercontinental ballistic missile. The US bases in Japan are already within the striking range of North Korean missiles.
  8. 8. Joel S. Wit, U.S. Strategy towards North Korea: Rebuilding Dialogue and Engagement, Report by the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS and the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University, October 2009, p. 5. Wit is a former State Department official who worked on US policy towards North Korea from 1993 to 2002, first as a senior advisor to Ambassador Robert L. Gallucci and then as the coordinator for the implementation of the 1994 U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework.
  9. 9. Kyung-Ae Park, “North Korea in 2003: Pendulum Swing between Crisis and Diplomacy,” Asian Survey, vol. 44. no. 1, 2004, pp. 139-46.
  10. 10. Fredrick Dahl, “U.N. nuclear inspectors prepare for North Korea return,” Reuters, March 5, 2012, available at
    http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/03/05/uk-nuclear-korea-north-idUKTRE8...

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