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2009/05/07 10:55 KST



By Tae-Hwan Kwak, Ph. D.

  (Former President, Korea Institute for National Unification/
Professor Emeritus, Eastern Kentucky University)

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea) launched a three-stage rocket on April 5 with leader Kim Jong-il reportedly watching it at a satellite control center, contravening U.N. Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1718. This short essay will analyze the future direction of North Korea's denuclearization after the rocket launch with some policy recommendations for getting the DPRK to return to the six-party talks.

   The DPRK claimed that a satellite was in orbit and transmitting back to Earth the "melodies of the immortal revolutionary paeans." But the U.S. concluded that the satellite had fallen into the Pacific Ocean somewhere between Japan and Hawaii. Washington, Seoul and Tokyo asserted the launch was a smoke-screen for testing a Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile.

   North Korea's decision for the launch appeared to be highly motivated by internal and external factors. First, Kim Jong-il wanted to consolidate his power. Second, the rocket launch demonstrated DPRK's ICBM capability to deliver a warhead with the Taepodong-2 estimated to have a range of more than 4,000 miles, and it was a worldwide advertisement for arms sales to potential buyers, including Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and Libya. Third, the launch was a ploy to get President Barack Obama's attention to lure the U.S. into direct negotiations.

DPRK's Angry Response to UNSC Statement

There is no doubt that the launch has had a negative impact on the international community, the six-party talks and North Korea's denuclearization process. The rocket launch immediately led to an emergency meeting of the UNSC. After a week of difficult negotiations on the format and language, the UNSC unanimously adopted its April 13 presidential statement, a step below a resolution. The UNSC condemned the launch, demanding that the DPRK not conduct further tests and expanding sanctions against Pyongyang. The UNSC statement called for an early resumption of the six-party talks to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Even though the U.S. viewed the Council's statement, broadly speaking, as binding, this view is debatable.

   The DPRK's reaction was swift and very angry, "vehemently refuting" the UNSC statement. As expected, Pyongyang declared on April 14 that it would boycott the six-party talks, reactivate its Yongbyon nuclear plant, which was shut down in 2007, and consider building its own light-water nuclear reactor. In short, North Korea would restart its nuclear weapons development program. The DPRK subsequently kicked out all U.S. and U.N. monitors after removing all seals and switching off surveillance cameras. The pullout of all international nuclear inspectors left no onsite means to monitor North Korea's nuclear facilities, which could yield weapons-grade plutonium if restarted.

   The DPRK also declared it was no longer bound by the six-party agreements, and asserted the six-party talks "have become useless." As in the past, the DPRK's harsh statements, a mixture of bluff and threats, are used as political leverage. It remains to be seen whether, after a cooling-off period of a few months, the DPRK may come back to the six-party talks to implement denuclearization agreements. Such a scenario depends upon new developments in bilateral U.S.-DPRK talks.

   The U.S., South Korea and Japan urged the DPRK to return to the six-party talks, but without concessions from the U.S., Pyongyang is unlikely to return to the six-party process. The White House's reaction to Pyongyang's statements said Pyongyang's decision is "a serious step in the wrong direction." State Secretary Hillary Clinton offered more measured remarks, hoping "there will be an opportunity to discuss this not only with our partners and allies, but also eventually with the North Koreans."

   China supported the UNSC statement and is expected to play a constructive role in resuming the six-party talks. Russia also urged North Korea to resume the six-party talks, while its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, confirmed the DPRK's position on the uselessness of the six-party talks after a trip to Pyongyang.

Some Policy Recommendations

The rocket launch heightened a sense of crisis on the peninsula, further complicating efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue through the six-party process. The other five nations (the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and South Korea) have repeatedly urged Pyongyang to return to the six-party talks. The U.S., South Korea and the DPRK, key players at the six-party talks, need to play positive, creative roles in getting the multilateral talks back on track by showing more flexibility and genuine sincerity. But what specifically should the U.S., South Korea and the DPRK do?

The U.S. Role
U.S. policy objectives toward Pyongyang under President Obama are to achieve North Korean denuclearization and to normalize U.S.-DPRK relations, which will likely mean acknowledging North Korea's nuclear status. That issue has been discussed in a series of research reports and statements by high-level U.S. officials in the military, intelligence and defense departments. President Obama is expected to take a pragmatic approach to Pyongyang similar to ones adopted for Cuba and Iran.

   This author has argued elsewhere that North Korea's denuclearization can be achieved through the six-party process, inter-Korean reconciliation, U.S.-China cooperation and the U.S.-ROK alliance. Thus, the U.S. needs to help the ROK change its policy toward Pyongyang. Washington needs to coordinate a policy change with Seoul to present one, unified voice as it is desirable that the U.S. pursue its engagement policy toward the DPRK together with the ROK. Thus, the Lee Myung-bak administration needs to be realistic and pragmatic in dealing with Pyongyang.

   U.S. strategy is based on a two-tract approach to the DPRK: international sanctions and resumption of the six-party talks. The UN Sanctions Committee has imposed sanctions on three North Korean companies, while the U.S. has balanced punitive actions with official statements that the DPRK should return to the six-party talks. Stephen W. Bosworth, a special envoy on North Korea, expressed his optimism that "pressure is not the most productive line of approach" in dealing with Pyongyang. The six-party talks and bilateral U.S.-DPRK talks will likely resume simultaneously after a cooling-off period.

DPRK's Role
For regime survival, a stable succession and economic assistance through normalized relations with the U.S., the DPRK needs to foster a favorable atmosphere in which the Obama administration can pursue its bold and pragmatic approach to North Korea. The DPRK needs to be cooperative by returning to the six-party talks to achieve its stated goal of constructing a Kangsong Taeguk, or strong, prosperous and powerful nation, by 2012. The only way to achieve this goal is for North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for economic assistance and normalized relations with Washington.

   The DPRK needs to return to the six-party process so that the Obama administration can offer a comprehensive package deal with Pyongyang based on assurances of security, economic assistance and human rights. Thus, Kim Jong-il had better make a strategic decision soon to return to the six-party talks and invite Bosworth and Secretary Clinton to Pyongyang to discuss the normalization process between the two countries.

ROK's Role
It appears that President Lee has taken the initiative, which is long overdue, but still desirable, in considering a new approach. Seoul needs to show more flexibility and real sincerity toward Pyongyang to make a significant breakthrough in frozen inter-Korean relations. Now is the time for President Lee to send his special envoy to Pyongyang to discuss pending issues with the North Korean leader. The ROK's indefinite waiting for a policy shift in North Korea is not desirable and even risky. Under current circumstances, the ROK could put its full participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) on the back burner to ease heightened tensions on the peninsula.

   The ROK has repeatedly said that it wants productive dialogue with the DPRK. If so, President Lee needs to show it through sincere deeds by announcing, for instance, the unconditional resumption of the suspended Mt. Kumgang tour project to induce Pyongyang to reciprocate. North Korea's proposed inter-Korean talks on April 21 marked the first government-to-government dialogue between the two Koreas since President Lee took office in February 2008. President Lee should make the best use of this opportunity to ameliorate inter-Korean relations. In sum, Seoul had better change its coercive diplomacy to national reconciliation and cooperation with Pyongyang.

Concluding Remarks

The UNSC imposed sanctions on the DPRK after its nuclear test in October 2006 but the measure have proven to be ineffective due mainly to China's continued shipments of luxury goods to the North. Many analysts argue that coercive diplomacy and international sanctions without the cooperation of China and Russia will not work. Further, a military option is unthinkable and even dangerous. North Korean leaders appear to have learned valuable lessons from history. Between 2002 and 2006, the Bush administration's coercive diplomacy toward Pyongyang totally failed. After October 2006, U.S. hard-line policy was subsequently reversed, confirming for Pyongyang that its nuclear brinkmanship had worked. It appears that the rocket launch has proven yet again that the North's well-designed brinkmanship will be effective in inducing the U.S. to come to direct negotiations where Pyongyang will seek further concessions from Washington.

   Washington and Seoul face a dilemma over how to deal with Pyongyang. Policy options are limited. A benign policy of neglect is not a good option, and is perhaps even dangerous, because it may provoke Pyongyang to stage even bolder provocations. For example, a second nuclear test and/or a third naval skirmish on the Yellow Sea. Thus, Washington and Seoul have no alternative but to come to negotiations with Pyongyang to get the six-party process back on track.

   In the final analysis, the DPRK announced it has restarted reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods to produce weapons-grade plutonium, suspending the denuclearization process. The author remains pessimistic about the prospects for the DPRK's return to the six-party talks in the short-term. But as discussed above, since there is hope for Pyongyang's return to the six-party talks under certain conditions, a more pragmatic and flexible policy on the part of the U.S. and South Korea could induce the DPRK to resume the six-party process.