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Gauging Pyongyang’s Missed Deadline

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
January 22, 2008

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The international agreement to denuclearize North Korea suffered a setback after Pyongyang missed an end-of-2007 deadline to make a full disclosure of its nuclear activities. Washington and its partners in the Six-Party Talks with North Korea now face another round of challenging diplomacy to try to put the agreement back on course. The Bush administration tried to remain upbeat despite criticism from within and outside the government. Its principle negotiator in the talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said on his recent trip to the region there is no new deadline (VOA) for Pyongyang to make a full disclosure of its nuclear activities.

The sensitivity of the issue in Washington was apparent. Jay Lefkowitz, the U.S. envoy on North Korean human rights, said Pyongyang is not serious about disarming (CNN) in a timely manner. But this prompted a rebuke from the State Department (AP), which said his comments “certainly don't represent the views of the administration.” Meanwhile, the communist state has reverted to tough language. A recent statement from North Korea’s foreign ministry claimed it fulfilled all its commitments (KCNA) and accused its Six-Party partners, including the United States, of failing to provide promised economic incentives.

The February 2007 agreement, like past deals on Pyongyang's nuclear program, promised energy aid and diplomatic and security guarantees if North Korea abandons its nuclear arsenal. Since the North agreed to demilitarize its nuclear program, it has shut down its main plutonium reactor, at Yongbyon, but among the major unresolved issues is whether the North has developed a parallel uranium-based bomb program. Pyongyang denies such a program exists and its state-owned news agency KCNA continues to heighten the threat level, citing accelerated U.S. aggression toward North Korea.

The reclusive nature of the North Korean regime makes its neighbors wary. While they continue to engage with the state, some of them also might be making back-up security plans. South Korea’s president-elect, Lee Myung-bak, who promises a tougher stance against his northern neighbor during his campaign, plans to close down the unification ministry (AP), a body that represents one of North Korea’s strongest official advocates in Seoul. Though Lee spoke of continuing inter-Korean reconciliation, he has also pledged to enhance Seoul’s military strength against Pyongyang (Korea Times). North Korea postponed its first round of talks (FT) with the South this year which analysts say appears to be a sign of Pyongyang’s uneasiness with the incoming conservative government in Seoul. CFR.org’s Crisis Guide to the Korean Peninsula provides detailed background on the conflict. A new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Institute of Peace, two Washington-based think tanks, says China has its own contingency plans (PDF) to dispatch troops to North Korea in case of instability. According to the report, the Chinese army could be sent into North Korea on missions to keep order if unrest triggers broader violence, including attacks on nuclear facilities in the North or South.

Amid the new developments, the Bush administration also faced tough criticism from former members of his own administration for being too soft on North Korea. John Bolton, a former State Department undersecretary for arms control and disarmament, called for the United States to extricate itself from what he called an “unwise and dangerous deal” (WSJ). Carolyne Leddy, who covered North Korea's nuclear program as director for counterproliferation strategy at the National Security Council from July 2006 to November 2007, also slams the administration (WashPost) for being too lenient on Pyongyang. “Paying off terrorists doesn’t work,” she writes. “It only encourages more terrorism. The same is true with nuclear proliferators.”

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