N Korea is being lured back into the fold

For more than a decade, attempts to cajole, coerce or cold-shoulder the North Korean regime into relinquishing its nuclear ambitions foundered, as successive administrations in Washington demanded either too little or too much from Pyongyang.

While its neighbours in north-east Asia fretted throughout that period, it took a provocative nuclear missile test unleashed last October by the administration of Kim Jong-il, the North’s despotic leader, to prompt the US and others to try again to put a lid on his atomic capabilities. Only four months on, there is a deal – indeed, one that could represent a turning point in the long-running crisis.

Diplomats and analysts alike are cautious about the prospects for implementing the six-party accord forged in Beijing on Tuesday, given North Korea’s historical difficulty in keeping its promises. Others detect in it a partial capitulation by a weakened administration of US President George W. Bush, badly in need of a diplomatic breakthrough to set against his Middle East troubles. Nonetheless, the negotiators’ handshakes will fuel hopes that steps will finally be taken to dismantle the rogue state’s nuclear facilities.

“There will be lots of problems but this deal is a positive sign,” says Kim Tae-woo, a nuclear specialist at the south’s Korea Institute for Defence Analyses. “So far North Korea has been relatively free to produce plutonium and nuclear weapons, but it looks like that is coming to an end.”

Under the deal (see panel), steps towards the abandonment of Pyong­yang’s nuclear installations will begin rapidly. Inspectors are to arrive within two months to monitor the shutdown of the five nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, from which plutonium was extracted to make October’s nuclear device.

This will set in train the vaguely worded joint statement of principles agreed among the parties – China, Japan, Russia, the US and the two Koreas – in September 2005. Under that pact, North Korea made a general pledge to abandon the development of nuclear weapons in return for unspecified aid and security assurances.

But all too soon, the process was disrupted when hawks in the Bush administration, who bristle at the idea of talking to a regime they consider part of the “axis of evil”, sought to undermine the apparent breakthrough. The US Treasury instigated a crackdown on North Korean-linked bank accounts that led to Pyongyang being frozen out of the international financial system and severely hindered its ability to earn hard currency. The crackdown and the pressure it put on Mr Kim’s regime – which struggles to provide heat, light and food for its 23m populace – was widely seen as a main trigger for last year’s nuclear test.

Despite this unpromising backdrop, the six-party process resumed at Beijing’s elaborate Diaoyutai state guesthouse in the most optimistic mood to have pervaded the talks in years, following unprecedented consultations between Christopher Hill, the US negotiator, and Kim Kye-gwan, his North Korean counterpart.

After it became clear that North Korea could not move on the nuclear issue while the financial sanctions remained in place, Mr Hill met the North Koreans in Berlin last month to thrash out a hypothetical agreement. However, North Korea was still insisting on large amounts of heavy fuel oil so the South Korean negotiator, Chun Yung-woo, came up with the idea of providing greater assistance in return for further steps towards denuclearisation from the North Koreans.

The Americans thought they had the basis for the agreement, until everyone showed up in Beijing last week and the North Korean negotiators “threw in everything but the kitchen sink”, according to an insider. The negotiators struggled to make any headway.

So on Monday, Mr Hill took aside Mr Kim, the North Korean negotiator, and told him about the ceramic Korean cup on his desk in Washington, a gift from his time as ambassador to Seoul. “If you try to pour too much liquid into the cup, it just tips over and you lose everything,” Mr Hill is said to have told his counterpart.

At 3am local time Tuesday, a weary-looking Mr Hill announced that the parties had, against the odds, reached an agreement. North Korea will shut down and seal its main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon within 60 days and allow international inspectors to verify the process. In return, it will receive food aid and fuel oil.

Pyongyang must then provide a complete list of its nuclear activities and disable existing facilities. That will bring it greatly increased supplies of fuel oil in a step-by-step process that has yet to be detailed. The US and South Korea also agreed to work towards a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War with the North. This has been a key demand of North Korea’s for some time, but Mr Bush has also recently cited it as a goal.

Attention will therefore now turn to the practical implementation of the deal, particularly whether the parties can move beyond an interim freeze – as outlined in a 1994 “agreed framework” with the then administration of Bill Clinton and subsequently belittled by the Bush team – to a more permanent arrangement. “We have no intention of freezing things,” says Mr Hill, who is understood to have been reluctant to bargain over fuel oil, conscious of comparisons with 1994. “‘Freeze’ suggests ‘freeze-thaw-freeze’. We’re interested in a one-way process.”

In addition to the 30- and 60-day deadlines set in the agreement, diplomats are already planning further rounds of the six-party talks in March and April. But the difficulties in securing this week’s deal augur ill for the even greater tasks that lie ahead. Not only is the issue complicated by the continuing financial sanctions and Japan’s grievance over North Korea’s abduction of a number of its citizens several decades ago, but the outcome is likely to be unpopular in certain circles in both Washington and Pyongyang.

American hawks are unhappy with the similarities between the 1994 framework and the new deal, saying that it offers North Korea compensation for a mere freeze – a step Pyongyang has already shown can be easily reversed – and rewards it for defiance. John Bolton, the hard-line former US ambassador to the United Nations, has said he was “very disturbed” by the deal, which could encourage countries such as Iran to follow in North Korea’s footsteps. “It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world,” he told CNN. “[It says] ‘If we hold out long enough, wear down the State Department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded’.”

When Pyongyang signed the “agreed framework” deal with the Clinton administration in 1994, resolving the first nuclear crisis, North Korea pledged to freeze its nuclear programme in exchange for heavy fuel oil and two proliferation-proof light water reactors. However, that unravelled in 2002 when the Bush administration, which took a much harder line against North Korea, accused Pyong­yang of running a secret uranium enrichment programme, the allegation that sparked the second nuclear crisis.

Oil shipments and the light water reactor project were suspended. Pyongyang responded by expelling international inspectors, withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and resuming the reprocessing of plutonium. Its success in that endeavour was demonstrated by having the plutonium to spare for last October’s nuclear test.

But some argue that the Bush administration’s “fixation” with its perceived axis of evil left it no choice but to soften its approach to North Korea. “Obviously Iraq and Iran are not going well so North Korea is their only hope for some kind of success in dealing with the axis of evil,” says Peter Beck of the International Crisis Group.

The waning of the hard line influence in Washington is demonstrated by how little mention there has been of late about of clandestine uranium enrichment by the North Koreans, accusations which torpedoed the 1994 framework in 2002 and led to the current crisis. Jack Pritchard, who served as George W. Bush’s special envoy on North Korea between 2001 and 2003, says it is “bizarre to say the least” that the uranium issue disappeared: “It’s what triggered all of this in October 2002, so I’m very curious about how they’re going to get around answering the [uranium] question.”

The information that led to the allegations was probably flawed, says physicist David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. “Non-proliferation analysts are starting to agree that there probably was no large-scale centrifuge facility but Bush wanted to kill the agreed framework.”

Many analysts say current agreement highlights the failures of the Bush administration’s hardline approach towards the problem. Jon Wolfsthal, a non-proliferation expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who lived in North Korea while working for the US Department of Energy, says Pyongyang has come out ahead because it will receive the assistance it was promised until 2002 but has also demonstrated it is a nuclear state.

“Meanwhile, the US has been in a scramble to get back to 2002,” Mr Wolfsthal says. “Anyone who supported the agreed framework should recognise the benefits of this deal but no one should think we are in a better position than before the Bush administration went through with this policy.”

Mr Pritchard adds: “It’s been a case of failed diplomacy and wasted opportunities up until now, anything that leads to winding back the process that was unleashed four years ago is a good step, a necessary step, but it’s not a breakthrough.”

Still, one key difference between the 1994 and 2007 agreements – its multilateral nature – should help compliance this time. “The six parties are safeguarding the agreement and that makes it much more difficult for one party to renege if it’s going to be five against one,” says a South Korean official. “If inspectors go back to Pyongyang and something goes wrong, North Korea will find it harder to kick them out, because there will be repercussions not only with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] but with all parties, including us.”

However, the question of whether North Korea has made the strategic decision to give up its nuclear weapons programme remains unclear: there is a chance that hardliners in Pyongyang could try to scupper the deal.

That is a possibility of which Mr Hill is all too aware. “There are some people in the DPRK who understand that these weapons have done more to isolate and endanger and impoverish the DPRK than to protect it,” says Mr Hill, calling the state by its official name – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “Alas I don’t think that this is a universal view in the DPRK.”

Isis’s Mr Albright, who had high-level meetings in Pyongyang in the week before these six-party talks, says North Korea could relinquish its new-found nuclear prowess.

“I think this will take security assurances, economic assurances – and time. They will shut down the reactor and allow inspectors to go in, get the energy in return and then discuss the next step,” he says, adding that the other parties would have to discuss restarting the light water reactor as part of any deal.

However, Mr Pritchard doubts that enough trust exists between the Bush administration and the Pyongyang regime to get to the finish line. “When one side has described wanting to change the regime of the other, it’s difficult to believe that we could come back to a neutral path where everyone trusts each other unless proven otherwise,” he says.

Mr Albright agrees up to a point. “North Korea feels that shutting down the reactor would be a major step beyond a freeze – it would be permanent – so North Korea probably feels they can make a better agreement with the next administration.” That view suggests the North Korean problem might still be around to confront Mr Bush’s White House successor too.

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