[Outlook]Stay the course on North’s nukes

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[Outlook]Stay the course on North’s nukes

In a statement released on Tuesday, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the country had suspended the disablement process of its nuclear facilities because the United States didn’t remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. It also threatened to start operating its nuclear facilities again.

On April 9 this year, Christopher Hill and Kim Gye-gwan met in Singapore. On June 27, the North’s declaration of nuclear materials and activities was submitted. On June 28, North Korea blew up a cooling tower.

This series of events seemed to indicate that the North Korean nuclear issue was about to be resolved, but now a warning light signaling another deadlock has started to flash.

North Korea has complicated reasons for its complaints. The biggest and most obvious is that the United States hasn’t erased it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, despite the fact that President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington would do so 45 days after Pyongyang turned in its nuclear declaration.

The different parties have different opinions about the verification package. In the fifth meeting of the heads of the six-party delegations held from July 10 to 12, it was agreed that a verification package would be set up within the six-party framework. Working-level nonproliferation groups started talks aimed at achieving this goal. Experts already predicted that reaching an agreement on the degree of verification would be the largest stumbling block to the negotiations.

The United States wanted special inspections, including samples and checks on suspicious facilities without notice, but North Korea refused to accept this. For this reason, the United States is suspending its delisting efforts.

On top of this, human rights violations in North Korea were mentioned in a South Korea?U.S. summit meeting in May and the U.S. Democratic National Convention has started. There are many reasons for North Korea to start complaining more loudly in its quest to get what it wants.

It seems too early, however, to see the statement by North Korea’s foreign ministry as a complete failure of the nuclear talks. First of all, there haven’t been any significant changes to the political and economic situations which led Washington and Pyongyang to hold a meeting in Singapore in April, breaking a deadlock and warming relations by reaching whatever agreements could be reached.

President George W. Bush is still standing on weak political ground because of the seemingly never-ending war in Iraq, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the short time left in his term. Thus, it would be difficult for him to switch back to his original hard-line stance. The same is true for North Korea. It needs American food aid to overcome food shortages and a friendly atmosphere with Washington in order to continue a tug-of-war with South Korea.

Second, there is no good cause to throw out the nuclear talks. In the July meeting of top six-party negotiators, it was agreed that obligations would be fulfilled by both sides by the end of October 2008. As the deadline hasn’t come yet, neither side has cause to break the agreement. Considering these circumstances, what North Korea wants is not an end to the talks; it is probably just trying to get its way in the verification package negotiations.

However, the mid- and long-term outlook on a total resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue is still dark. Even if a verification package is established in the end, it is uncertain whether it will actually contribute to an overall resolution.

Moreover, whether the third- stage negotiations to abolish Pyongyang’s nuclear arms will be held or not is the primary concern. Another important task is how to handle the uranium enrichment program and the suspicion of cooperation between North Korea and Syria over nuclear technology, which are not currently on the agenda. South Korea must keep on eye on the North, checking if it continues to hold on to its nuclear weapons and facilities as a minimum nuclear deterrence.

North Korea demanded that U.S. nuclear weapons not travel through the Korean Peninsula or its surrounding area, readdressing a nonproliferation measure it promoted in the 1990s. North Korean officials have often repeated that the United States should get used to a North Korea that possesses nuclear weapons. It is unclear yet whether these are negotiation tactics or the North’s logic for possessing nuclear weapons. Either way, it certainly casts a nuclear shadow over the Korean Peninsula.

Officials in Washington who are used to the U.S. idea that abolition of North Korea’s nuclear programs is the same thing as denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula should think long and hard about this issue.

*The writer is a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

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