30 June 2008

The Tower is Gone, What is next?

North Korea has made a public demonstration with the destruction of the cooling tower of the Yongbyon nuclear complex. Although it is always fun to see concrete structures blown up, the controlled detonation really meant little, aside from symbolically, as the floor of the reactor building had already been breached to ensure there could be no further nuclear activity at Yongbyon. The cooling tower destruction, rather, was to serve as a more visible set of evidence that North korea was no longer capable of using the Yongbyon facility. The timing was to coincide with U.S. President George Bush promising to take North Korea off the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

Pyongyang has played out the Yongbyon card - it had become more costly to keep the facility than get rid of it. The U.S. backed down some, in the compromise mode currently prevailing, and the North Koreans have simply given up an old program that is no longer used or useful. The weapons grade plutonium they made they still have. The weapons they made they still have. They didn't have to admit to a uranium program (in public) or to their proliferation activities (publicly at least). They just got rid of an old, outdated, costly facility that needed demolished anyway. And in return, they break free from the constraints from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

With this step out of the way, we now move on in the new mode - no more created crises, but instead a series of small steps, handled by the bureaucrats. Look, for example, at the timing of last week’s events. North Korea released its list, The State Department was ready with its press release and Bush had about the earliest morning press conference I have ever seen, then a day later, boom, up down goes the cooling tower. No breakthrough here, just fulfillment of pre-arranged steps. The breakthrough, if there was one, happened two years ago. All the rest is details.

Now, none of this means North Korea has given up, nor that the U.S. has given in. Just that they have agreed that crisis is less useful for now that this slow dance. Pyongyang is still buying space, Washington still doesn’t trust them, and both are perfectly capable of turning things around and going toe to toe whenever they find it more effective and useful. The real question, now, is what this means for China and Japan, and even South Korea. So long as North Korea is dealing one-on-one with the United States, it doesn't really need China or South Korea. China has been trying to rectify this, and sending Xi there a week or so ago was part of that - and convincing the USA that they still need the PRC in this. Japan is nervous, and Seoul is, well, pre-occupied for now, but they will try in the not too distant future to try to retake the lead. Once the beef mess is done...

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