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Segal: Expectations for North Korea Talks ‘Extremely Low’

Interviewee: Adam Segal, Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 15, 2006

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Adam Segal, a leading expert on Asian military and technological issues, holds “extremely low” expectations for the latest round of Six-Party Talks over North Korea’s nuclear program. He thinks the North Koreans may put such importance on keeping nuclear bombs that they would avoid giving them up at all costs.

Segal, CFR senior fellow for China studies, says North Korea probably agreed to resume talks under heavy pressure from China. But he believes China is likely to be satisfied with North Korea merely continuing with talks, with or without a resolution. Segal says: “So as long as they can continue to do that, then they can keep the Chinese off their backs.”

The Six-Party Talks over North Korea’s nuclear program resume this weekend, with private discussions between the parties, leading to the formal group sessions on Monday. What are your expectations for these talks?

Extremely low. I think a successful meeting will be an agreement to have more meetings. At this point there has been some discussion about the possible makings of compromises at the margin over, for example, this issue of the Banco Delta Asia in Macao [a bank sanctioned for allegedly laundering counterfeit American currency produced by North Korea]. It seems as if [Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R.] Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, has sent some signals that the North Koreans would be willing to work with [the] Treasury [department] to try and disentangle some of the North Korea’s legal business operations from its illegal ones.

In fact, there’s going to be a side talk between the U.S. Treasury department and North Korean officials in Beijing while the nuclear talks are going on.

That seems to have been one of the reasons why the North Koreans have agreed to resume the nuclear talks. But on the main issue of the meetings, dealing with North Korean denuclearization, we still seem to be caught in this, “Who’s going to go first?”

There was a preliminary agreement in September 2005. What did that call for? The United States wants to come back to that agreement, apparently.

The crux of the accord was that the North Koreans agreed to dismantle their nuclear weapons program in return for some light reactors. But then almost immediately after that, there was a disagreement about what was going to happen first. The United States said, “We have to see signs of dismantling the military nuclear program before we give any assistance for enhancing the civilian nuclear program.” The North Koreans said, of course, the opposite. Also, soon after the September agreement, the sanctions on the banks affiliated with North Korea took place. Both the financial institutions and the North Koreans felt squeezed. That set off the series of events that led to the nuclear test in October.

Now, since the nuclear test in October, there have been UN sanctions imposed on North Korea. Are they hurting at all, do you think?

It does seem as if the financial sanctions, the sanctions on luxury goods, [are] having some effect on the regime at the very top. But on the other hand, it seems as if the South Koreans have increased their support for North Korea. And the Chinese have not significantly reduced their economic backing. So in some ways it seems as if the economic stability of the regime is as strong, if not stronger, than before.

These talks, of course, have come about in large part because of China’s great irritation with North Korea for first holding missile tests [in June] and then holding a nuclear test. And China’s clearly pushed North Korea very hard to come back to the table. How does this fit in into the framework of overall U.S.-China global relations?

It is one of the things we always point to when we say how good relations are with China right now. Cooperation with China over North Korea is clearly incredibly important to the Bush administration given how North Korean policy has seemed to have gotten away from it. It’s clearly tied into the larger relationship, especially the U.S. economic relationship in that there’s a great deal of pressure in Congress from the manufacturing, industrial, and other sectors that want to brand China as a currency manipulator. The Bush administration and the Treasury department have been very hesitant to do that. It doesn’t want to threaten the political side of the relationship right now over these economic concerns.

Now Treasury Secretary [Henry] Paulson, who has had great experience in China when he was in the private sector, has just completed a very high-level visit to China on economic issues. Was that visit a flop?

The Secretary did a very good job of setting expectations realistically when some of his aides said, “We’re expecting movement from China not within weeks, but over the next two years.” You can point to the fact that the currency has been revalued 5 percent over the last eighteen months, certainly not as much as the United States hoped, but China is showing some flexibility. Other issues where I think we could make progress, clearly, are intellectual property rights, aviation, environment, energy. But what we saw in these talks was a China that in effect says: “You don’t really understand China. We understand China much better than you do. We have reasons, real reasons why we’ve progressed and reformed slowly and gradually. And we’re not going to change that.” I think this is the new reality, which is that the United States doesn’t have a lot of leverage with China these days. It’s much more a negotiation than us telling the Chinese what to do.

Coming back to the North Korea talks, why can’t we work out a deal by which they would close down the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and we would give them a written security agreement? That would seem simple enough.

I read in some of the South Korean papers that Chris Hill has offered to give such a written security agreement. I think the issue is—and it’s just not one of these questions where we know what the answer is—whether the North Koreans are even willing to make that deal, given that the Koreans’ focus is so clearly on regime survival and they seem to believe that having a nuclear weapon ensures that. There was a pretty interesting article in the Wall Street Journal today that there’s been an increase in North Korean propaganda about “Embrace our nuclear weapon. How important it is to our survival.” That would suggest that they really have no intention of giving up the nuclear program.

Some people think North Korea has determined that they’re not going to do business with the Bush administration and they ought to just sit it out for two years until there is a new president.

Yes. I think also there’s a lot of North Koreans who say “Look, we can wait the twenty-four months and see who’s next.” I think the North Koreans believe—and I think they’re right about this—that China’s primary strategy is not necessarily a resolution to the problem but just to continue to have talks about the problem. So as long as they can continue to do that, then they can keep the Chinese off their backs.

 

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