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Another New Tack on North Korea

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: April 25, 2008

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After months of deadlock and countless rounds of diplomacy, experts say the United States has reached a new compromise (FT) with the North Korean regime on denuclearization. Washington denies this lets North Korea off the hook on its secret uranium-enrichment program and its proliferation of nuclear technology to Syria. But the shift brought criticism raining down upon the Bush administration from quarters once very much in step with U.S. policy toward the nuclear-armed Stalinist dictatorship. In particular, John R. Bolton, who shaped administration thinking on the issue for much of the president’s tenure, contended in the Wall Street Journal recently that Washington had capitulated to Pyongyang. Bolton ended his missive with this line: “President Bush, you are no Ronald Reagan.”

The criticism grew louder after U.S. intelligence officials briefed members of Congress Thursday that North Korea had helped Syria (LAT) build a nuclear reactor which was destroyed by an Israeli air strike last year. In a background briefing, senior intelligence officials said they hoped this disclosure of North Korea’s proliferation to Syria will strengthen the position of U.S. negotiators in the ongoing Six-Party Talks. Pyongyang failed to meet its January 1, 2008, deadline to fully disclose its nuclear activities as called for under the Six-Party Talks. But now, experts and media reports suggest, under the new deal North Korea will only have to declare its past plutonium production. In exchange, the United States will take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism and remove some of the sanctions imposed on the country under the Trading with the Enemy Act. A January 2008 Congressional Research Service report examines three possible policy options (PDF) for the Bush administration to proceed with North Korea’s removal from the terrorism list.

President Bush denied making concessions. Instead he argues that the United States, along with the other participants in the talks, will wait for Pyongyang to make a full verifiable declaration before they move to fulfill their obligations toward North Korea. However, CFR’s Gary Samore tells CFR.org that the Bush administration made the compromise in order to move to the next phase in the talks—negotiating the actual elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. But he says: “I am skeptical that the North Koreans will actually carry out that commitment.” There are also concerns that North Korea will underreport its plutonium production and that negotiators might hit another deadlock over actual verfication of the production facilities.

This possible softening of the U.S. stance has come as Japan and South Korea appear to be getting tough with Pyongyang. Japan recently extended the economic sanctions (BBC) it imposed on North Korea after its nuclear test in October 2006. And South Korea’s new president, Lee Myung-bak, has said that future aid will be linked to progress in the denuclearization process. In his visit to the United States last week, Lee stressed the importance of a complete declaration by North Korea.

There is also concern that the talks have failed to address other pressing issues regarding North Korea. CFR’s Michael J. Gerson writes in the Washington Post,“The price we are paying to pursue those talks is silence about the suffering of a brutalized, friendless people.” The United Nations’ World Food Program has warned of a looming humanitarian crisis: More than 6. 5 million out of the total population of 23 million in North Korea do not have enough to eat.  This situation is made worse by a rise in tensions between the North and the South; Seoul has not yet delivered (IHT) its annual food assistance to the North. Columnist Christopher Hitchens writes in World Affairs that because the world will not allow North Korean civilians to starve, “Pyongyang despotism therefore has a vested interest in prolonging the stalemate.”

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