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2009/12/17 11:35 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 85 (December 17, 2009)



By Tong Kim
(Visiting Professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul,
Research Professor with Korea University's Ilmin Institute of International Relations,
and Adjunct Professor at the SAIS of the Johns Hopkins University)

January 2010 marks 19 years since the first U.S.-DPRK (North Korea) meeting in New York between Arnold Kantor, then under secretary of state under President George H. W. Bush, and Kim Yong-sun, the DPRK's Workers' Party secretary. The first high-level bilateral encounter focused on U.S. concerns regarding the North's nuclear program and its interest in improving relations with the United States, and came only after heated debate within the U.S. administration. During the talks, Kantor urged North Korea -- which was getting ready to accept an IAEA safeguards agreement -- to give up its nuclear program, but offered few rewards.

   Despite the time that has passed, U.S. efforts have failed to resolve the North Korean issue. Negotiations have sometimes made progress and at other times retreated from the progress that was made. Meanwhile, in the last few years especially, North Korea's nuclear and missile programs have become more threatening. Pyongyang has conducted two atomic tests and launched a number of missiles with varied range. Today, the fundamental nature of the North Korean issue remains the same -- each side accusing the other of breaking its promises. And unless the DPRK and the U.S. can be assured of each other's positive intent, build mutual trust and undertake serious negotiations in good faith, the issue of denuclearization will continue to go unresolved.

   This month, U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth made his visit to Pyongyang in an effort to bring the intransigent North Korea back to the six-party talks and to jump start long-suspended negotiations over denuclearization. Washington's decision to send Bosworth was made after 11 months of consultations both within the Barack Obama administration and with allies and partners participating in the multilateral forum.

   Kim has said his country will determine whether to participate in multilateral talks, including the six party talks, depending on the outcome of direct dialogue with the U.S. Pyongyang has always preferred bilateral talks because they have proven essential to progress -- even within the context of the six-party negotiations. Regardless of the outcome of Bosworth's visit, it seems likely that the first bilateral meeting between the Obama administration and Kim's government will be followed by at least one or possibly more bilateral meetings before the full resumption of the six-party talks.

   Although North Korea has shown strong interest in engaging the U.S., it is unlikely to accept U.S. demands that Pyongyang recommit to its obligations under the September 19, 2005 joint statement, denuclearizing irreversibly, in return for diplomatic normalization, security guarantees and economic aid.

   Pyongyang has argued that normalization should not be the final reward, but instead part of the denuclearization process. The North is well aware of a long list of U.S. conditions for normalization beyond the resolution of the nuclear issue, including the human rights issue, missile exports, and illicit international activities. But from Pyongyang's perspective, there has never been a serious U.S. effort to "undertake steps to normalize relations" with the DPRK.

   What Pyongyang appears more interested in now is the conclusion of a peace agreement to officially end the Korean War and to replace the Armistice Agreement, which the North has repeatedly said was abrogated. The establishment of a peace regime was dictated in the September 19 agreement -- to be negotiated among "directly related parties" in a separate forum. During the second inter-Korean summit in October 2007, the North Korean leader suggested that three or four parties meet to discuss a peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula, asking then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun to take the lead in such efforts.

   On Dec. 5 of this year, Choson Sinbo, a Tokyo-based newspaper seen as a North Korean mouthpiece, insisted that "a peace agreement should precede denuclearization talks in order to terminate the hostility between the two direct parties." Pyongyang has consistently argued that its access to nuclear deterrents is a product of U.S. hostile policy designed to isolate and stifle the North Korean government. On Nov. 2, Pyongyang's foreign ministry said the removal of U.S. hostility and the building of mutual trust would be a necessary condition for making "significant progress" toward the realization of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

   One problem for Washington in considering North Korea's proposal is the adamant objection of South Korea. Inter-Korean relations have deteriorated under the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak, inaugurated early last year. On Dec. 2, Seoul Foreign Minister Yoo Myung-hwan made clear his government's opposition. "The North Korean proposal begins from its disregard of the South Korean government ... the North is going to divert the attention from the nuclear issue so that the North may gain time to continue developing nuclear weapons," he said.

   There have been concerns in Washington and Seoul that if a peace agreement were granted, North Korea would demand the termination of the U.S.-ROK alliance and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea. Pyongyang claims that the American presence on the peninsula threatens the North. The issue of U.S. troops in South Korea was also discussed at four-party talks among the two Koreas, the U.S. and China in the 1990s, which ended without making any progress.

   Conversely, Kim Jong-il has stated several times that North Korea would not oppose the continued presence of American troops in Korea even beyond the point of national unification. He has said he recognizes the constructive U.S. role contributing to the security of the region as a balancing power. He confided this unexpected revelation first through the Kantor-Kim Yong-sun meeting in January 1992, then through his meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in June 2000, and again at his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in October 2000. If inter-Korean relations were restored to the level reached during the two governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, it would be possible for the North to accept the ROK (South Korea)-U.S. alliance, provided that joint U.S.-ROK military exercises against the North would be suspended.

   The North Korea's nuclear issue no doubt is the most critical point of contention. Understandably, South Korea's Lee government places its priority on denuclearization. President Lee is still pursuing a denuclearization-first policy, and proposed a "grand bargain" settlement that is comparable to the U.S. "comprehensive package" solution in substance but differs in timeline.

   Lee wants to resolve all issues in one fell swoop and for good. The concept of Lee's "grand bargain" may have some merit in the sense that it intends to keep the North from repeating what is seen by Seoul and Washington as a deliberate cycle of "provocation, negotiation, agreement and negation." But Pyongyang has its own side of the story, in which the outside world has not shown interest. Washington and Seoul should first find out what it would take to realize Pyongyang's complete and verifiable denuclearization, and how to negotiate an affordable accommodation of the requirements.

   Washington's view of North Korea has not changed very much over the past 19 years. In 1992, the majority view was that North Korea was a moribund state heading for collapse and trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. It is true that Pyongyang has tried to sideline the South in nuclear negotiations, but its regime has not collapsed. It was a minority view that North Korea's nuclear program could be bought with political and economic incentives. In fact its nuclear program had been partially bought -- the first time with the Agreed Framework and the second time under the six-party process. Secretary of Defense Gate's words, "We don't want to buy the same horse again," are often quoted. But the truth is the horse was never fully paid off -- it was only a down payment. There was no serious effort to make progress in the discussion of a peace agreement or normalization of relations between the U.S. and the DPRK.

   Today, there is still the same school of thought that believes that North Korea's regime is doomed. In the spring of 2009, policymakers in Seoul and Washington became infatuated with the possibility of a succession crisis in Pyongyang amid rumors of Kim Jong-il's failing health. If anyone knew for certain that North Korea was headed for collapse, it would make sense to keep isolating and pressuring it with sanctions and even a military blockade halt proliferation of nuclear and fissile material. But what we know today is that Kim is still in control. The South Korean foreign minister recently said Kim's health is "better than we would think and he has no trouble doing his work."

   President Obama has declared a desirable but difficult goal of a world without nuclear weapons. A nuclear-weapons-free North Korea is realistically attainable. The next Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference is scheduled for March 2010 in New York. The treaty has three main objectives -- non-proliferation, disarmament and the peaceful use of nuclear energy -- but it has failed to prevent the North from developing nuclear weapons. North Korea announced its withdrawal from the treaty in January 2003 after the U.S. cut off oil provisions, accusing the North of pursuing an illegal uranium enrichment program. The withdrawal became effective in April 2003. Pyongyang had promised to return to the NPT and IAEA safeguards in the six-party agreement of September 2005.

   It is interesting to note that the DPRK, the first country to withdraw from the NPT, continues to use the language of the treaty. It has talked about proposing disarmament talks with the United States (Article V on negotiations of disarmaments) and it invokes the sovereign right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy (Article IV on development, research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes). Pyongyang says it has developed nuclear deterrents in order to protect its "supreme interest" from being "jeopardized" (Article X on justification of withdrawal from the NPT). The six party talks only agreed "to discuss, at an appropriate time, the provision of light water reactor to the DPRK," which later said it would never abandon its nuclear programs before those promises are fulfilled.

   Despite the challenges ahead, the year 2010 bodes well for progress towards North Korea's denuclearization. Kim Jong-il recently reiterated that a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula was the wish of his father and the North's founder, Kim Il-sung. He also said, "The relations between the DPRK and the United States should be converted into peaceful ties through bilateral talks without fail."

   Washington has resumed bilateral talks with Pyongyang and it will continue to do so within the framework of the six-party process, if the North returns. It would be in North Korean interest to return to the talks as soon as possible and start making progress in nuclear negotiations. The South and other relevant parties will join in, providing corresponding security and economic benefits to the North in return for the its cooperation.