14 February 2007

Reshaping North Korean Nuclear Management

The February 13 agreement at the six-party nuclear talks is receiving quite a bit of criticism from various quarters in the United States and abroad. Certainly, like any agreement, this one is full of unanswered questions, incomplete timelines and verification procedures, and a general lack of any enforcement measures. That said, there are some notable aspects of this agreement that far outshine the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement – not the least of which is the establishment of working groups to both separate the various individual issues from the broader talks, and allow for more focused discussions and arrangements before tactical and contentious issues are ever brought before the larger forum. If the process proceeds under the new, more routinized and institutionalized format, rather than the ad hoc crisis management format of the past talks, will allow for more progress on various elements of the overall process, while avoiding allowing individual hang-ups to stop the whole process. Thus, the Japanese issue with North Korean abductions, or the North Korean issue with U.S. banking sanctions, would be moved to the smaller working group discussions – similar to the way the U.S. and DPRK held a series of bilaterals prior to the latest round of six-party talks. The working group model also removes the sense of all-or-none from the talks, making breakdowns seen in the 2004 Agreed Framework less likely as there are multiple tracks ongoing simultaneously. Perhaps this is where much of the criticism comes from. The United States is now dealing with North Korea as an equal partner at talks, not as a crisis that needs immediate management or as an “Evil Axis” member that needs punished and constrained. This really leaves a sour taste in the mouths of the “hawks” and “conservatives” who didn’t want to see the United States “give in” to North Korean “nuclear blackmail.” At the same time, the “doves” and “liberals” who called on Washington to hold bilateral talks with North Korea are seeing progress on the multilateral front instead, but aren’t seeing any concrete outcomes or requirements. In the end, at first glance, it appears that North Korea is the big winner. Pyongyang instigated the crisis – just to force negotiations. It now has those negotiations. Effectively, North Korea trashed its room, and then demanded an allowance from the United States before cleaning up. And the United States gave in. Now, this giving in is interesting. Under Bush, the United States has pursued a policy toward North Korea that consisted of criticizing, vilifying, and basically ignoring North Korea and its actions. This strategic neglect was intentional. If one wasn’t going to engage North Korea in state-to-state discussions, and wasn’t going to attack, then ignoring North Korea was the only way to deal with them. Basically, North Korea was the kid holding his breath at the toy store demanding a toy, and the United States was the parent ignoring the kid, knowing that, when the kid passed out, it would begin breathing again. But, like at the toy store, The U.S. wasn’t alone, and lots of other countries were watching and criticizing. So long as it was a top-tier issue, Washington could deal with the angry looks and keep ignoring Pyongyang. But Iraq and Iran have taken up all the bandwidth, and Washington has devolved North Korean policy back down to State Department. And State, with some opportunity to again shape policy, has jumped on the opportunity. So now, they have moved beyond ignoring, and beyond dealing with the issue as a crisis, and instead set a framework for future talks on a more mutual basis. So back to the current accord. This time, they have moved past the game of chicken to setting a series of actions in motion that happen relatively simultaneously, rather than one after another. Again, this is designed to reduce the problems seen in the 1994 agreement. North Korea will shut down Yongbyon (something it has done in the past), seal it (something it has un-done in the past) and invite back the IAEA inspectors. Washington, in association with the other parties (aside from Japan), will supply “emergency” fuel and aid. Both these steps happen within 60 days. Half way through that period, the six parties get together again to see where they are at. Washington gets its concession for moving forward with talks (North Korea has to identify and list all its nuclear facilities and materials) and North Korea gets what it wants for moving forward (Washington talks about normalizing relations, removing sanctions and taking North Korea off the State Sponsor of Terrorism list). South Korea gets what it wants - the ability to build up North Korean infrastructure, as head of the economic and energy air working group, thus smoothing the way for future reunification. Russia, as head of the Northeast Asia Peace working group gets a role in the Asia-Pacific region, something it hasn’t had for quite a while. China retains overall control over the denuclearization process, keeping the tools of leverage for dealing with the United States. And Japan gets to keep hounding North Korea over abductions, something good for domestic consumption and for justifying Tokyo’s defense development and constitutional changes. Of course, the problem of North Korea’s nukes isn’t solved, but then dialogue with the USSR didn’t eliminate their nukes either, and the general reaction from all the parties suggested that the Oct. 2006 DPRK nuke tests, while unfortunate, didn’t really change anyone’s views on the real situation in Northeast Asia. So if you wanted a real agreement that is designed to remove North Korea’s nuclear capability quickly, not there. If you wanted an agreement that takes a crisis and turns it into a managed relationship, this is it. Everyone can cheat, and it can all break down, but given the more than a decade North Korea has used the nuclear issue as a bargaining chip, at least here is a new way to try to address the issue and take some control out of Pyongyang’s hands.

No comments: