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Waiting for Pyongyang

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
Updated April 17, 2007


North Korea failed to meet its weekend deadline to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, although South Korea officials say activities detected near the reactor may indicate Pyongyong intends to close down Yongbyon (AP). U.S. officials said they will give Pyongyang a few more days to meet its end of a tentative denuclearization deal, signed two months ago by Six-Party Talk members. That agreement set an April 14 deadline for North Korea to shut down the main reactor at its facility at Yongbyon. At stake are millions of dollars in energy and humanitarian aid, not to mention progress toward denuclearization and renewed inspections. A dispute over $25 million in frozen North Korean funds in a Macao bank imperils the deal.

The funds served as a major point of contention between Washington and Pyongyang since 2005, when the United States blacklisted the Macao bank for allegedly laundering North Korean money. Although the U.S. Treasury Department moved to release the funds in late March, a series of bureaucratic obstacles intervened and Pyongyang responded to the delay by walking away from negotiations in Beijing. Macao authorities released the funds last week, according to the Treasury Department and South Korean officials. A day before the April 14 deadline, North Korean officials said they would comply with the denuclearization accord as soon as they confirmed Washington’s assertion that the funds were unfrozen (Yonhap).

Given the complications associated with the funds’ release, “it's probably prudent to give this thing a few more days,” a senior State Department official, speaking on background, told reporters after the deadline expired. Pyongyang asked members of a U.S. delegation visiting North Korea for a one-month extension. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, one of the delegates, pressured North Korean officials to meet the deadline (CBS/AP), saying the shutdown should only take a “few days.”

In a new interview with Bernard Gwertzman, CFR's Gary Samore, a North Korea expert, says Pyongyang will likely proceed with closing down Yongbyon. But, he says, after that “it gets much more difficult” because the North Koreans will probably want light-water nuclear reactors in exchange for full disclosure of their nuclear program—a deal the White House will not want to make. David Albright, a nuclear expert at the Institute for Science and International Security, says release of the Macao funds set a bad precedent for stalling implementation of the denuclearization pact. “North Korea has decided that if it makes a deal, it insists on getting whatever benefits or incentives before it moves on,” says Albright. Tong Kim, visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, warns North Koreans to remember “they won a rare opportunity to engage the United States after waiting six long years.”

After years of refusing to hold bilateral meetings with Pyongyang, the White House changed tactics as part of the February agreement and hosted North Korean negotiators for talks in March. Meanwhile, bilateral talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang stalled over the issue of North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens during the 1980s and 1990s. In a Online Debate, nonproliferation expert Henry Sokolski says the February pact undermines the U.S.-Japanese alliance. A new Backgrounder on U.S.-Asia policy discusses how the North Korean question affects U.S. strategy in the region. Crisis Guide on North Korea | ISIS report on North Korea’s plutonium stock

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