[Viewpoint]New year, old tensionThe year 2008 has come without Pyongyang keeping its pledge to declare its nuclear programs. North Korea missed the deadline set at the Oct. 3 agreement in the six-party talks. The country failed to keep its promise to give a complete and accurate account of all of its nuclear programs.
So far, North Korea has made great efforts to improve its relations with the United States, including scheduling a New York Philharmonic concert in Pyongyang. Such recent moves suggest that it wants to build friendly relations with the United States, which could be a safeguard to help it maintain its regime.
So, why is Pyongyang so hesitant to resolve the nuclear tension, which is the crucial factor?
There are two reasons. The first is that Pyongyang and Washington have differences in opinion regarding compensation for the North. The key issue is removing North Korea from the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The Oct. 3 agreement includes the following: If North Korea disables and fully details its nuclear programs, the United States and other nations will provide 950,000 tons of fuel oil, remove the North from the terrorism list and make progress toward taking the country off the U.S. Trading with the Enemy Act.
The problem is that Washington and Pyongyang are interpreting the agreement in different ways. North Korea insists that the dismantling of the nuclear programs is progressing, so the efforts to remove Pyongyang from the list of terrorist states should progress. However, Washington is saying it will only start the discussions after North Korea makes a full report. The two parties have different views about the sequence of fulfilling the details of the agreement. The North’s Kim Yang-gon, director of the United Front Department of the Workers Party Central Committee, emphasized Pyongyang’s position during a visit to Seoul at the end of last year.
Another issue causing differences is the fuel oil deal, which has now changed from 950,000 tons of fuel oil to 450,000 tons of fuel oil and economic aid equivalent to 500,000 tons of fuel oil. North Korea has so far received 150,000 tons of fuel oil and 5,010 tons of steel, equivalent to several tens of thousands of tons of fuel oil. A North Korean Foreign Ministry official has mentioned that Pyong-yang had no choice but to control the speed of the dismantling because the United States and four other countries were delaying fulfilling their obligation to provide economic compensation.
For similar reasons, Pyongyang postponed freezing its nuclear program for more than six months, until it took hold of the frozen funds in the Banco Delta Asia accounts. However, there are more substantial reasons. North Korea is not yet truly ready to abandon its nuclear program.
Making a “complete and accurate report of its nuclear programs” is the litmus test on that issue. Abandoning the nuclear program means North Korea will no longer have its one and only negotiation card. The sense of desperation to create more solid safeguards by sounding out Washing-ton’s intentions makes North Korea hesitate.
It needs to declare the volume of its plutonium production, its uranium enrichment program and whether it has passed nuclear technology to Syria. The most complicated part is the uranium enrichment program. It is awkward to make either North Korea or the United States accountable for causing the second North Korean nuclear crisis in 2002.
Of course, Washington has decided not to apply a strict yardstick on this issue. According to a high-ranking foreign ministry source in Seoul, the United States is in the position of “a priest hearing a confession.” Washington will accept a confession as long as North Korea acknowledges its uranium enrichment program to a certain degree. For example, the North can say where and how many centrifuge parts it had purchased and argue that the purpose was to produce nuclear fuel in preparation for the completion of a light-water reactor. The Oct. 3 agreement about a complete declaration by the end of 2007 was drafted based on such a background.
Yet the agreement reveals that the North and the United States have different aims. Pyongyang’s tactic seems to be to declare its plutonium and explain its uranium enrichment program to the United States in a roundabout way, instead of declaring it outright. However, that tactic won’t work. If Pyongyang remains stubborn, we are bound to see another crisis. Yet, such a crisis will put too much of a burden on both U.S. President Bush and Kim Jong-il. China, in particular, will never allow a crisis on the Korean Peninsula before the Beijing Olympics in August. It seems, the tension over the nuclear program will continue in the new year between North Korea and the United States.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Ahn Hee-chang