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The Path to Pyongyang

Prepared by: Lee Hudson Teslik
Updated: July 17, 2007

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Mistrust pervades Washington’s dealings with Pyongyang so thoroughly that any deal, however seemingly straightforward, prompts a double-take. Even as UN inspectors confirmed (Korea Times) North Korea had turned off its primary nuclear reactor under terms agreed following February’s Six-Party Talks, U.S. and international officials remain cautious. While hailing the Yongbyon shutdown, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, reiterated that other facilities still needed to be inspected and that steps remain toward the ultimate goal of fully decommissioning the reactors (FT).

A new round of talks opens July 18 in Beijing (Xinhua), but even assuming the current wave of shutdowns proceeds as planned, many questions remain unanswered. The Economist argues there is good reason to doubt Pyongyang will easily agree to the next demand: fully disclosing its nuclear activities and moving toward a complete disarmament of the Korean peninsula. For starters, negotiators have been here before, and with little to show for it. The July 2007 developments simply return negotiations to where they were in 1994, after a deal reached by President Clinton stemmed North Korea’s plutonium production. But as this CFR.org Crisis Guide explains, Pyongyang is believed to have gone ahead with uranium enrichment, a different path toward developing nuclear weapons, the 1994 pact notwithstanding. Pyongyang only restarted the Yongbyon reactor in 2002 after President Bush confronted Kim Jong-Il over these separate enrichment activities.

Now talks will likely turn back from sticks to carrots, examining whether some form of economic incentives—food and energy aid top the list—might convince Kim to change course, moving negotiations beyond the Clinton-era stalemate. South Korea on July 12 dispatched 6,200 tons of fuel aid to its northern neighbor, but the Asia Times notes Pyongyang may seek major increases in energy aid, perhaps demanding up to 950,000 tons of oil as part of a denuclearization package. Kim Myong Gil, the head of North Korea’s UN delegation in New York, told the Associated Press that Pyongyang would seek major concessions from the United States and would only move forward if Washington acts “in parallel.” Private investment concerns also loom. The Wall Street Journal profiles one Egyptian businessman who is investing $115 million in a North Korean cement plant, one of the largest infusions of foreign investment the country has ever received, but lingering sanctions draw larger-scale foreign investment into question.

For all due caution, however, most evidence seems to support U.S. envoy Christopher Hill’s assessment that Yongbyon’s shutdown is “a good start” (IHT), even if a quick fix isn’t in the works. North Korea on July 13 revived its calls for direct military talks (NYT) with the United States, raising hopes that agreement over Yongbyon could prompt an eventual peace accord, replacing the armistice agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. The FT says any such negotiations would likely center on the normalization of bilateral ties and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea.

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