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2008/10/16 10:41 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 25 (October 16, 2008)


U.S. Removal of N.K. from Terror List Raise Hopes for Six-party Progress

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The United States removed North Korea from its terrorism blacklist on Oct. 11 in a major breakthrough in the denuclearization of the socialist country. The U.S. State Department said it made the decision as Pyongyang had agreed to verification of all of its nuclear programs, including the suspected uranium-based nuclear program, nuclear proliferation and its plutonium-producing facilities.

   In response to the U.S. move, North Korea said on Oct. 12 it would cooperate in the verification of its nuclear programs and allow outside inspectors access to its Yongbyon complex. It also said it would resume disabling the Yongbyon nuclear plant, a process it had reversed in protest at the U.S. delay in pushing through the agreed delisting.

   Pyongyang restored access on Oct. 13 for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to its Yongbyon facilities, Reuters reported. "The inspectors can access all facilities at Yongbyon again, including the reprocessing plant," the news agency quoted one diplomat as saying. In its latest provocative step, Pyongyang expelled the nuclear inspectors from Yongbyon and test-fired short-range missiles into the West Sea.

   Following the breakthrough, the six-party denuclearization talks are expected to be held late this month to discuss follow-up measures to the recent developments, Seoul officials said. They said member nations to the talks agree that a new rounding should be convened before the U.S. presidential election.

   The State Department's removal from the blacklist was an apparent move to revive the six-party process in the final months of the Bush administration. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed a document on the "de-listing" after President George W. Bush approved the plan a day earlier.

   South Korea welcomed the verification deal, hoping the six-way talks would be resumed soon. "The government welcomes it with an assessment that it has paved the ways for the six-party talks to return to a normal path and will ultimately lead to the North's abandoning of its nuclear programs," Seoul's chief nuclear negotiator Kim Sook said in a press briefing on Oct. 12.

   China, the host country of the six-way talks, also welcomed the accord. But Japan had raised objections to the delisting, arguing North Korea should not be taken off the list until the cases of Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s were resolved.

   The six-party disarmament talks stalled as Washington and Pyongyang disagreed over details of a verification protocol to check the North's nuclear list, submitted in June. The North had recently backtracked on its pledge to dismantle the main nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, citing the U.S. failure to remove North Korea from its terrorism blacklist.

   Pyongyang had threatened to retract the disablement stage when te U.S. failed to delist Pyongyang on Aug. 11, 45 days after President George W. Bush notified Congress of his plan to remove the country from the list.

   North Korea was added to the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism after North Korean agents blew up a South Korean airplane over Myanmar, killing all 115 passengers, in November 1987.

   Washington's announcement followed a visit by Christopher Hill, chief U.S. nuclear envoy, to Pyongyang on Oct. 1-3 to salvage the stalled denuclearization talks. During his trip to the North Korean capital, Hill made a face-saving proposal to North Korea, in which Washington would first verify the plutonium-based Yongbyon facilities and move later to the more sensitive issues of a suspected uranium-enrichment nuclear program and nuclear proliferation.

   A fresh round of six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear program is expected to reopen following a compromise reached between Washington and Pyongyang over the establishment of a nuclear verification protocol. But the date and venue for the international talks have yet to be set by China.

   The removal of North Korea from the list carries primarily symbolic meaning because it will take the impoverished country a considerable period of time to benefit from the delisting. It can gain access to aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or other development institutions. It is apparent the North has much to gain politically from the U.S. move.

   The delisting means that the North will be allowed to take part in the international community as a normal country. It will also have a better chance of removing various international sanctions that have been choking its international trade and economic cooperation. And now the North can erase its stigma as a state sponsor of terrorism, more than 20 years after it was put on the blacklist.

   But observers say difficulties still remain ahead. The North has the history of brinkmanship -- being provocative and raising tension in order to pull out bigger and better deals particularly with the U.S. Pyongyang has adopted the "action for action" formula while resorting to its brinkmanship tactics in tough negotiations during the six-party talks for the past five years.

   U.S. and South Korean hardliners criticized Bush for trying to take the North off the terror list without a solid denuclearization commitment, saying Bush was trying to make the North Korean nuclear issue a major foreign policy achievement amid failures in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

   But a number of experts say the delisting is more of a symbolic gesture, as Pyongyang still has a long way to go before getting aid from the IMF or other lending agencies where the U.S. is the largest stakeholder.

   When the six-party talks resume, participating nations will finalize and endorse the verification agreement, officials say. They will also discuss how to wrap up the second phase of the three-tier denuclearization.

   So far, eight out of 11 disablement steps, since last November, have been completed, under a 2007 denuclearization-for-aid deal. Under the deal, North Korea pledged to disable its nuclear program in return for 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil or equivalent assistance in addition to the normalization of ties with Washington and Tokyo. In the second phase, the communist nation was to disable its Yongbyon nuclear facilities and fully account for its atomic weapons program.

   The six nations will discuss details on how to implement the remaining three disablement steps, including withdrawal of spent fuel rods and disposal of unused fuel rods, officials said. Some 4,700 of the 8,000 spent fuel rods have so far been extracted and stored in a cooling pond.

   "If the North steps up the pace of removing the spent fuel rods and cooperates with the two remaining measures, it could be possible for us to complete the entire disablement process within this year," a South Korean diplomatic official said on condition of anonymity. South Korea is considering purchasing the unused fuel rods from the North.

   Seoul also hopes that the six-party talks will deal with the matter of how to enter into the third stage of denuclearization in which Pyongyang would dismantle its nuclear program, materials, and weapons. "We hope that the six-party talks will discuss how to finalize the second phase of the denuclearization and enter into the third phase," Seoul's chief nuclear negotiator Kim Sook said.

   However, observers said the disablement will hinge on the partner countries' provision of promised aid to the impoverished North. Choson Sinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper based in Japan, reported on Oct. 12 that Pyongyang would begin the verification work after other countries had completed the energy aid.

   The Seoul government said it was considering sending a delayed shipment of steel aid to the North as a reward for Pyongyang's surrender to the verification agreement. South Korea had planned to send North Korea 3,000 tons of steel around September in accord with the 2007 deal.

   Half of the energy aid has been delivered to the North, but Japan is opposed to supplying its portion of the aid. Tokyo was dissatisfied with the verification deal, and claimed the aid should be withheld until Pyongyang settles the issue of the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean spies decades ago.

   Observers also say the six-nation process may hit problems during the verification process. They expect verification to coincide with the third stage of denuclearization in which Pyongyang would dismantle its nuclear program, materials, and weapons.

   Despite the verification protocol, however, conflict may reemerge over how to verify the "undeclared facilities" that the North omitted in its June declaration, they said.

   Critics say the consent-based verification may give the North more discretion in implementing its requirement to open its "undeclared" nuclear facilities to international inspectors. In that case, disarmament may face another setback due to disagreement over target facilities, they said.

   The North has opposed inspection of those facilities, saying they are military installations unrelated to its development of nuclear weapons.

   The result of U.S. presidential election may have a significant effect on six-party process. If Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, who maintains a hardline stance toward the North, is elected, observers say the denuclearization talks may become more problematic.

   Analysts said the latest U.S. action will pave the way for normalizing inter-Korean relations, though a visible improvement will take time. The breakthrough marked a significant step forward in inter-Korean cooperation programs, and wil push the two Koreas to engage with each other more actively, experts say.

   But they caution against expecting a short-term result, given lingering issues between Seoul and Pyongyang. The two Koreas still differ over whether and to what extent they should honor the last summit agreement in 2007, involving Seoul's promise of huge aid to rebuild the North's dilapidated economy.