The latest deal aimed at stripping North Korea of nuclear weapons, touted by the Bush administration as a breakthrough (PBS) when first proferred last year, absorbed a blow on New Year's. Pyongyang proved true to form in missing a critical deadline (LAT) for shutting down elements of its nuclear program and releasing data on its October 2006 nuclear test blast.
Since the North agreed to an action plan to demilitarize its nuclear program, is has shut down its main plutonium reactor at Yongbyon, and the deal foresees it being permanently disabled in 2008.* But the North so far has proven unwilling to take the second step. That entails Pyongyang detailing all of its nuclear activities since effectively ending its participation in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1993.
Among the major issues at this stage is the question of whether the North has developed a parallel uranium-based bomb program. Pyongyang denies this, and has accused the United States and its Six-Party Talks partners of delaying promised economic incentives. The February agreement, like past deals on Pyongyang's nuclear program, promised energy aid and diplomatic and security guarantees if it abandons its nuclear arsenal.
The U.S. State Department has remained relatively upbeat about prospects for the deal even as the horizon has darkened. U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley told a recent CFR meeting that North Korea's denuclearization "seems to be going well" and that the United States needs to keep up the pressure. On December 30, however, anticipating North Korea's failure at New Year's, the State Department issued a mild statement complaining about foot-dragging by the North and saying it was unfortuante that the North was "slowing down the process of disablement."
The history of tumultuous diplomatic relations between North Korea and the United States always suggested that optimism might be risky. CFR.org's Crisis Guide to the Korean Peninsula provides detailed background on the conflict. Regional analyst Gordon Chang says Kim Jong-Il’s regime only bargains over nuclear issues when it is in jeopardy, and the Bush administration should move in quickly to capitalize on the narrow window to disarm the state (WSJ).
While the denuclearization process has moved ahead, related efforts at regional security continue. Japan and North Korea met late last year without getting any closer to solving issues of compensation related to Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean peninsula and Tokyo’s demands for more information on North Korea's past abductions of Japanese citizens.
In South Korea, meanwhile, last month's elections changed the face of Seoul's government as the conservative candidate, Lee Myung-bak, won by a sizeable margin over his two opponents. The Financial Times says the landslide represents a clear mandate for policy change in a country that has been dominated by left-of-center parties for the past decade.
While the election turned on economic issues, South Koreans seem to have lost some of their enthusiasm for the “sunshine” policy of presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun—a policy of engaging North Korea which will face intense scrutiny (Guardian) once Lee takes office. An analysis from the Wall Street Journal argues that South Korea’s vote could potentially fray ties with Pyongyang, particularly if Lee decides to cut back on South Korean aid to North Korea in an attempt to spur more straightforward economic ties.
*Editor's Note: The original version of this analysis transposed North Korea's plutonium and uranium bomb programs. The plutonium-based program is the one North Korea has acknowledged.