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Pyongyang's Deal

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
June 27, 2008

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In a significant move in North Korea's denuclearization process, Pyongyang turned in (Xinhua) a long overdue account of its nuclear program to Chinese officials. The Bush administration immediately responded by lifting the provisions of the Trading with the Enemy Act and notifying Congress of its intention to remove North Korea from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in the next forty-five days. Yet critics of the declaration say the report, which only details plutonium-based materials and facilities, falls short on three important counts:

  • It does not include details of suspected uranium enrichment;
  • It does not address Pyongyang's proliferation activities to countries like Syria and Libya;
  • It fails to give an account of the nuclear weapons already produced.

The exchange this week amounts to far less than the Bush administration's goals when it originally agreed to this formula during the Six-Party Talks. But after a compromise in April, the United States appears to have softened its stance on the issue amid criticisms of capitulating to Pyongyang. That has brought mixed reactions domestically, though some Democrats who have been highly critical of the pace of Bush diplomacy toward North Korea took solace in what they saw as a snub of the hard-liners (NYT) who drove policy for much of Bush's tenure.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, argues the policy will get Kim Jong-Il's regime out of the plutonium-making business, which she calls "by far its largest nuclear effort." Rice acknowledges the real challenge ahead is verification of the accuracy and completeness of declaration, and says the sanctions will be reimposed if North Korea is found to have cheated. President Bush also sought to silence hard-liners, saying lifting sanctions off North Korea "will have little impact on North Korea's financial and diplomatic isolation."

The Bush administration has suggested it will try to verify the contents of the declaration during the forty-five-day period it takes for North Korea to be officially removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, but experts say the verification will likely take months to complete. In a move meant to underscore the decision to decommission part of its nuclear program, Pyongyang imploded the cooling tower (LAT/video) of the Yongbyon nuclear plant Friday, offering the world an unusual opportunity to witness live a step in the diplomatic process. This is a largely symbolic gesture, writes Jon Wolfsthal, senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "None of the steps North Korea has taken thus far are irreversible, but the destruction of this tower makes it harder to reconstitute their plutonium program," he writes.

As a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism, North Korea faces a range of economic and trade restrictions. The removal of sanctions will make it eligible for financial assistance from the international financial institutions. "Whether they get that support is a different matter," says CFR's Gary Samore. Also, he says, it does not change much in bilateral trade relations. "American business is not clamoring to invest in North Korea even if the sanctions are lifted," he says.

Experts have long argued that the North Korean regime intends to use the denuclearization process to gain political and economic benefits, but does not have any intention of giving up its nuclear program completely. Winston Lord of the International Rescue Committee and former CFR president Leslie H. Gelb wrote in an April Washington Post editorial that yielding to North Korea will only increase the likelihood of confrontation down the line. But, they say, "feeling the glow of a rare foreign policy accomplishment," President Bush "may proceed to cement a legacy." Still, Samore argues this is a useful initial step. "We can't ignore North Korea, we can't force it to give up its nukes, so the only strategy that is left is the incremental quid pro quo strategy," he says.

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