Clearing the Nuclear Fog over North Korea

Yongbyon nuclear reactor
North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear reactor from a satellite photo (Photo: Space Imaging/AFP-Getty Images).

The Jan. 8 “unofficial” U.S. visit to the empty holding ponds at the restarted Yongbyon nuclear site, a strangely obvious facility for a country that maintains a most of its strategic assets deep underground, yielded little to sway opinion.

For those who believe in the possibility of reconciliation and negotiation with the North Korean leadership, the Yongbyon facility represents tangibility and verifiability. For the rest, it symbolizes contradiction: a facade designed to obfuscate and divide.

But while Yongbyon is a fog, the words of North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Gye-gwan are more illuminating. Charles “Jack” Pritchard, a former U.S. State Department official and a member of the U.S. team, told reporters that Kim had warned him that “time is not on the U.S. side.” Kim may well be right: There is a strong case to be made that time is the United States’ fatal weakness in its dealings with North Korea.

All things being equal, dictators have an advantage when dealing with democracies. The North Korean leadership is not bound by the same time constraints, checks and balances, and rules that bind elected officials. There are no elections to be fought, no competing interests to reconcile. This offers an obvious incentive for North Korea to drag things along, ideally through the next elections and toward a potentially more pliant adversary.

The status quo, the tense “cold peace” that has defined the last 50 years of peninsular history, is a “win” for North Korea. It helps the leadership to retain power by fueling the mechanisms that keeps them in power: the constant threat of invasion and attack by those who seek to destroy the revolution. A negotiated settlement is not in their best interests.

Subject as they are to election cycles, South Korean and U.S. governments must keep negotiations moving along. This allows North Korea to play a reactionary game of vague declarations and opacity: “We have the right to nuclear deterrent” (does not declare that they have them), “we have a nuclear program” (does not differentiate between weapons and energy). Such statements leave Pyongyang’s negotiating partners scratching their heads and re-checking translations to determine exactly what was said and what was meant. All the while, the clock keeps ticking.

At the same time as North Korea allowed a U.S. delegation of nuclear experts to tour Yongbyon, North Korea reiterated its promise to freeze its nuclear program as a first step to a negotiated settlement. This “concession” would be followed immediately with economic and political enticements from the United States and its allies. But a close look at the North Korean offer suggests a repeat of history.

The 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework, predicated by an “unofficial” visit to North Korea by former President Jimmy Carter, basically promised the same thing. Then, a “freeze” was met with the formation of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, a US$5 billion nuclear reactor project, millions of tons of food aid, fertilizer, and other incentives. Eight years later, it was discovered that while the nuclear program at Yongbyon had been frozen, the pursuit of nuclear weapons continued through a uranium-enrichment program at an undisclosed location, allowing North Korea to receive billions of dollars’ worth of incentives, and continue their program elsewhere. Some experts believe much of the aid that was offered was probably used to finance the covert nuclear program.

Now, 10 years later, North Korea has “unfrozen” its reactor at Yongbyon and maintains that it has reprocessed, is reprocessing, or is technically capable of reprocessing—depending on the official statement of the day—the plutonium-laden fuel rods once kept there. Their latest offer essentially calls for them to refreeze what was supposed to have remained frozen in return for more concessions, amounting to a “new” agreement, whereby the North will receive more for agreeing to do what they already agreed to, but didn’t do, before. This would all be laughable if it weren’t an election year in the United States and the prospects for success in this initiative didn’t involve a redress of a very dangerous problem in a sensitive area of the world.

And Then There’s the Alliance

During his election campaign 14 months ago, South Korean President Roh Mu-hyun declared his intention to develop a more indigenous foreign policy for South Korea, a policy more congruent with South Korea’s status as a populous, industrial nation and one that makes paramount peaceful and speedy rapprochement with North Korea—all carrots with few discernable sticks. This is a challenge to U.S. attempts to portray the region as united in its rejection of North Korean belligerence and suggests that time may not be on the side of the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

Since last spring, a turf war has been simmering between career diplomats in the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) and more “independent-minded,” domestically oriented advisors in the Korean National Security Council (NSC). The NSC branded those in MOFAT, especially long-serving members of the North American Division most closely responsible for Washington-Seoul relations, as “pro-[U.S.] alliance” and, according to Presidential Secretary for Personnel Affairs Jeong Chan-yong, overly “dependence minded.” MOFAT officials, for their part, have spent much of past year trying to control damage to the 50-year U.S. alliance. Indeed, the agreement to deploy 3,000 South Korean soldiers, scheduled to leave this April for reconstruction and stabilization duties in Iraq, was a substantial victory for MOFAT, though the Nationally Assembly has yet to pass the bill authorizing their departure.

The tense balance between the departments responsible for Seoul’s foreign policy continued through the end of 2003. By the end of December, conflicting sentiments became public. South Korean diplomats were quoted as saying the Roh administration was “naive and unrealistic” in its dealings with the United States. Others said that dealing with members of the NSC and its chief, Lee Jong-seok, was like dealing with the Taliban, as they were so radical and reactionary. This accompanied speculation that some within the administration, specifically the NSC, were North Korean sympathizers.

Clearly fed-up, President Roh reprimanded MOFAT. Officials from the NSC, perhaps smelling blood in the water, cranked up their own rhetoric, lamenting MOFAT’s weak-kneed approach to its dealings with the United States. With the Jan. 14 resignation of Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan, it seemed the NSC had won.

But as his appointment of Ban Ki-moon to succeed Yoon attests, Roh is a political pragmatist. A “pro-independence” replacement would have given too much fodder to the conservative opposition going into National Assembly elections this April. Ban, a career diplomat with more than 33 years’ experience, much of it with the United States (he served as both director general of the North-American Affairs office in MOFAT and at the South Korean Embassy in Washington) was a shrewd choice.

The full effects of the shuffle, however, are beginning to be felt deep in the organization as personnel changes in the North American bureau of MOFAT begin. Cho Hyun-dong, another important figure from the North American bureau, has been removed and has yet to be reassigned. Wi Sung-lac, the bureau’s director general, has been reassigned to the NSC to work side by side with the “pro-independence” clique, as Roh keeps his friends close and his enemies closer.

For North Korea, the divisiveness within the South Korean government and the cracks in the U.S.-South Korean alliance are a boon. The tensions appearing in the alliance may not mark its immediate demise, but they do show the depth of differences that exists within Seoul’s highest government offices and a fundamentally different perception of the North Korean “threat.”

North Korea has been continuously repeating rhetoric designed to resonate with the “pro-independence” minded. Since Roh’s inauguration, official North Korean media—there’s no other kind—has been repeating the mantras, “Let’s reunite our way,” and, “Lets’ remove foreign interference in our affairs.” This could spell disaster for the upcoming talks. The United States has been repeating its own mantra: Any agreement must center around North Korea “fully, irreversibly, and verifiably” dismantling its nuclear program; the key will always be verifiability and the credible threat of regional deterrence.

As South Korea adjusts its policy, the dynamics of the next six-party talks will change, putting increased pressure on Japan and the United States. China, for its part, will likely continue to be comfortable with the status quo and probably won’t prod North Korea too aggressively, while Russia will continue to be concerned primarily with stability within North Korea, regardless of how it is maintained. But the effect in Japan could be much more severe. Vacillations in South Korean policy could cue a rising chorus from the right and the center of the Japanese political spectrum questioning the utility of constitutional restrictions on the military, especially now, with its forces deployed in a non-U.N. mission for the first time since the end of World War II.

This will leave the United States in the unenviable position of soothing Japan, encouraging the participation of Russia and China, and negotiating with the two Koreas simultaneously.

For the six-party talks to succeed, the region must be tied to the successes and failures of agreements with Pyongyang. But regional solutions imply a regional resolve, and there is little evidence that such resolve exists. While the North Korean issue remains essentially locked where it was 10 years ago, the countries involved are changing. In the case of South Korea, the perception of North Korea as an intractable enemy is shifting dramatically. There is a definite trend in South Korea away from seeing North Korea as a nemesis toward seeing it as a potential partner. For North Korea, the potential rewards for delay are clear. It will continue to exploit differences, both within and between negotiating members, in a desperate and dangerous bid for survival. Foreign Minister Kim may well have been right to claim that time is on his side.