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Dismantling Yongbyon: Continued US-North Korean Brinkmanship

Written by Emily B. Landau

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logo1.jpgSeptember 3, 2008
INSS Insight No. 71
Landau, Emily B.
In October 2007, in the context of the six-party talks designated to negotiate a solution to its nuclear ambitions, North Korea agreed to disable all its nuclear facilities. Late last year, it indeed started to disable the facilities in Yongbyon.
In the last week of August, however, North Korea announced that it had halted this process because the US did not follow through on its promise to remove North Korea from its list of state-sponsors of terrorism. This was expected from the US following North Korea's submission in late June 2008 (after a six-month delay) of a report on its nuclear program and nuclear activities. Directly following the submission of the report, North Korea publicly and dramatically destroyed the cooling tower at Yongbyon, and clearly expected a dramatic gesture in return.

The US did not follow through on removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terror because it was not entirely satisfied with the report that North Korea submitted, nor has North Korea agreed to a comprehensive plan for verifying its contents, which would entail allowing outside experts to enter North Korea and check the situation on the ground. North Korea has refused to accept what it regards as overly intrusive inspection and verification activities on its territory, claiming that it would not allow the kind of "house search" that the US carried out in Iraq.

The result is North Korea's latest announcement. If it follows through on the threat and begins rebuilding Yongbyon, this would reverse at least temporarily the major success of the five-year talks with North Korea: agreement on and partial execution of the dismantlement of its nuclear power plant at Yongbyon, the source of the plutonium for nuclear weapons. More likely, however, is that some compromise will be found. Indeed, since 2002, the process of confronting North Korea's nuclear activities has known many setbacks, usually due to mutual US and North Korean accusations regarding the upholding of prior agreements and commitments. When not satisfied, North Korea has tended to ignite crises, such as its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003 and its nuclear test in October 2006. Bringing disputes to the brink in order to create the necessary momentum to move forward in the direction that it wants has become a familiar North Korean tactic.

When North Korea's nuclear program was raised in 2002 to one of the top slots on the international non-proliferation agenda - due to questions regarding its adherence to the 1994 agreement it had concluded with the US - North Korea made its desire to negotiate on this issue directly with the US quite clear. The reluctance of the US to accept this demand and negotiate with North Korea bilaterally ultimately led to the creation in the summer of 2003 of the six-party regional framework for negotiating with North Korea, whereby Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan joined the US and North Korea in talks. The latest episode, however, underscores that even with the six-party regional framework, it is the bilateral US-North Korea relationship that remains the most powerful framework for understanding developments and checking North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

The latest episode also proves once again that for North Korea, nuclear weapons development is primarily a bargaining chip for attaining political and economic security. North Korea had initially pressed primarily for security guarantees and political acceptance from the US. More recently, economic considerations have assumed center stage, and the supply of heavy fuel is the more immediate focus of its demands; indeed even its removal from the list of state-sponsors of terror is important to North Korea because remaining on the list has negative ramifications for it in the economic realm.

Due to the eagerness of the current US administration to succeed in confronting an important nuclear proliferator, and because North Korea is in dire need of economic assistance, a viable deal in the nuclear realm is a realistic option. This helps explain why overall - the rocky road notwithstanding - the process of dismantling North Korea's nuclear program has slowly moved forward.

While the US is now adamant about verifying the report that North Korea submitted in June, previously it was relatively lenient as far as some of its longstanding concerns regarding North Korea's nuclear activities. In fact, in its eagerness to score at least one diplomatic victory in the non-proliferation realm, the US let up pressure on three important issues: North Korea's suspected secret uranium enrichment program; its suspected stockpile of nuclear weapons; and its role in the proliferation of nuclear technology and materials to additional states of concern. Beyond a statement from October 2007 reaffirming North Korea's commitment not to transfer nuclear technology and materials to other states, North Korea was not required to make a detailed public report on this or the other two issues.

The third issue in particular - which came to the fore in the wake of Israel's strike on a facility in Syria on September 6, 2007 - poses a serious potential challenge to security in the Middle East. Gaining a better understanding of North Korea's behavior as a proliferator of nuclear know-how to other countries is one of the most important aspects of the process, and US leniency with regard to demands that North Korea come clean about its past activities is puzzling. In late April 2008, it was assessed by US intelligence services with high confidence that Syria cooperated with North Korea in the construction of the facility bombed by Israel.

A crucial question that remains open is the nature of Iran's role, if any, in this dynamic. According to at least one report, the cooperation was three-way, and North Korea and Syria were working to help Iran develop its plutonium-based nuclear program. Whether true or not, surely North Korea should be pressed to give answers as part of the negotiations over its nuclear program. Past experience has shown that unlike Iran, for North Korea it's a question of the price: it might be costly, but North Korea can be expected to cut a deal.
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