North Korea: Breakthrough or Back to Business As Usual?
According to the Washington Post the deal calls for Pyongyang to freeze work on the reactor at the heart of its nuclear program and allow inspections of the site. In exchange the impoverished communist state could expect some $300 million in aid and a relaxation in sanctions. "Unlike Libya's 2003 decision to abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs before getting any tangible U.S. benefits, the North Korea deal is an incremental approach in which Pyongyang is rewarded as it moves toward what the United States hopes will ultimately be a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula."
PJM: Is this recent deal with North Korea going to work?
Ayson: It depends on your timeline. It's quite possible that North Korea will seal its nuclear facilities, allow the inspectors back in, and disclose some of its nuclear programs. But the sixty four thousand dollar question is whether it will be an initial step towards the dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Past experience suggests that will be a hard road. It would be very optimistic to believe that North Korea is now ready just to give up its nuclear weapons program.
PJM: What are the things that need to happen and what could break the deal?
Ayson: North Korea not only needs to seal its nuclear facilities but also start dismantling them. North Korea also needs to account for all the fissile material it has developed and get rid of that. Then it must hand over or destroy the nuclear devices it has actually assembled. They need to state how many there are and what exactly was tested last year. They have to get to the point where they don't have any arsenal at all. There also has to be clarity on whether they have a uranium enrichment facility to back up the plutonium. When James Kelly went to Pyongyang he was told, 'Yes, we've got uranium.'
They've got to create trust that these measures are verified and that they are irreversible. That would require quite intrusive inspections by the UN. Then there has to be consistent pressure from North Korea's two main neighbors, China and South Korea; we're talking about years of sustained pressure, and its difficult to see that happening.
From North Korea's side it has to have confidence that United States and its other partners are going to live up to the bargain; that the fuel oil will be supplied in sufficient amounts, that the Macau bank funds are released. There's a whole bunch of things coming down the line that will make the bargaining we've just seen in China seem fairly small by comparison.
PJM: If North Korea gives away the nuclear card what leverage do they have in future negotiations?
Ayson: So far North Korea has used their nuclear program as a way of extracting economic concessions. It's not as if their economic problems have made it say 'we better give up the nuclear program.' It's more that they've used it as a way of leveraging concessions while they really had no intention of getting rid of their program in its entirety.
That's why you're seeing the skepticism now. Many believe its just a repeat of what happened in 1994 under the Clinton Administration. You agree to kind of mothball the facility, and you get some fuel oil in exchange. There are those that hope this is Step One towards the complete dismantlement of the program, but the track record of North Korea suggests otherwise.
But it is a bit harsh to say that this is just a repeat of 13 years ago and is destined to fail. We don't know that for sure.What we do know is that the record suggests what comes next is going to be difficult.
The North Korean economic situation really worries China and South Korea. Do they put as their number one interest, as the United States does, the de-nuclearization of North Korea, or is their priority actually a stable North Korea. Both nations have long standing concerns that if North Korea goes belly-up then the economic crisis may cause a rush of refugees and other things into their territories. That sort of thing may cause problems that make a nuclear North Korea look like the lesser of two evils.
PJM: Many of the concessions promised North Korea are of the hand-to-mouth variety which may get them over the next couple of months. Is there some long-term program to create a stable North Korea?
Ayson: It's not easy to see what a stable North Korea would look like. How will aid actually be used by the North Korean regime. Can you really get humanitarian aid to where you want it to go in North Korea? If you want to make really sure you have a stable North Korea; one where the economic assistance is getting where it needs to go, you probably need to change the regime. And regime change creates all sorts of new difficulties, as we've seen in another part of the world. That would be true even if that change did not happen by force. From some perspectives it will seem better to prop up a regime like this than to seek its downfall.
PJM: But what if, due to Kim's aging or North Korea's economic difficulties, the regime were to fall anyway? What would be the consequences of that?
Ayson: The North Korean experts I've talk suggest that how close North Korea is to actually collapsing has often been exaggerated.
If we go back to the 1994 agreement that the Clinton Administration had -- the Agreed Framework -- one of the explanations for why the Clinton Administration did not take its obligations under that agreement as seriously as it might was that it was actually expecting the North Korean regime to topple. That it was just a matter of time.
That was twelve years ago. The regime has demonstrated a quite a remarkable ability to put up with all sorts of internal difficulties -- famine, economic shortages, etc. Its a risky call to say that they're now on the brink. Clearly the North Koreans are desperate for hard currency and other assistance. But it would be a brave person to say that we can keep tightening the noose and that eventually they will topple. It may happen, but it's not something that's very easy to predict with certainty.
Dr. Robert Ayson is a director of the graduate program in Strategic Studies at Australian National University's Strategic and Defense Studies Center. One of his areas of interest is nuclear issues.
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