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Global Economics

Nuclear Deal Prolongs Dilemma over North Korea

President Bush's compromise delisting Pyongyang as a state sponsor of terrorism leaves plenty of thorny issues for his successor

The weekend salvage of a faltering nuclear deal underlines a policy dilemma facing North Korea, the U.S., and U.S. allies. The Bush Administration had to compromise and take North Korea off a list of state sponsors of terrorism before Pyongyang verified disabling its nuclear program, but that drew immediate expressions of concern even from within President Bush's own Republican Party. And a lingering question remains about whether North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will ever give up his nuclear ambitions.

Yet many policymakers in the U.S. and South Korea believe a compromise is probably the only accord Bush could get as his term runs out. The last thing Washington and Seoul want is another destabilizing Korean nuclear crisis amid a global financial meltdown. "The [Seoul] government welcomes this as providing momentum placing the six-party talks back on track and leading to an eventual dismantlement of the North's nuclear program," said Kim Sook, South Korea's chief envoy to the talks, which are aimed at persuading Pyongyang to denuclearize in exchange for benefits.

The talks, involving the U.S., the two Koreas, China, Japan, and Russia, will proceed for now. But North Korea watchers predict a long road ahead full of pitfalls that could derail the agreement. Yun Duk Min, North Korea specialist at the Institute of Foreign Affairs & National Security (a think tank funded by Seoul's Foreign Ministry), points out that the U.S. and North Korea agreed to take relatively easy steps, leaving thorny and controversial issues to be tackled by Bush's successor. "By any measure, North Korea's nuclear problem is not any better than it was eight years ago," Yun says.

Limited Inspections

Sure, Pyongyang agreed to let U.S. and international inspectors verify its disablement activities at declared nuclear sites. But the inspectors' access was limited to the nuclear complex that makes weapons-grade plutonium at Yongbyon. Visits to other facilities will be subject to consent from North Korea, which has refused to give inspectors access to the site of its 2006 nuclear test or to military facilities that might have been involved in the nuclear program.

Among the problems likely to pop up is the challenge of verifying whether North Korea has secretly developed atomic arms by enriching uranium. The U.S. suspects the North has sought to enrich uranium for atomic arms development in addition to producing weapons-grade plutonium at the Yongbon facility. North Korea has denied it has a separate highly enriched uranium program. "Wording in the agreement is so ambiguous over these matters that it will take years to address them," says Park Hyeong Jung, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government-backed think tank.

Certainly it's hard to call the deal a victory for Bush. In 2002 he branded North Korea part of what he calls an "axis of evil," but made a U-turn to begin bargaining with Pyongyang after it carried out a nuclear test in 2006. The delisting from the terrorism blacklist also came after the North applied heavy pressure; expressing anger at the U.S. refusal to remove it from the list, North Korea in the last few weeks moved toward restarting its Yongbyon nuclear complex and barred international inspectors from the facilities.

Japanese Ire

The U.S. move roused the ire of Japan (, 10/12/08), a major Washington ally in the region. Japan, which has a lingering feud with Pyongyang over the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped decades ago by North Korean agents, had sought to link the delisting to the abduction issue. "I believe abductions amount to terrorist acts," Japanese Finance Minister Schoichi Nakagawa said in Washington, calling the U.S. decision "extremely regrettable."

Still, with options narrowing for Bush, the U.S. proceeded. A military strike against North Korea would have been too costly for an Administration preoccupied with war in the Middle East. Economic sanctions after the North's nuclear test didn't work as border trade with China provided a lifeline to the North, which has long been isolated from the rest of world. "It has become pretty clear that any workable nuclear disarmament of the North requires its voluntary cooperation," says Paik Hak Soon, North Korea expert at Sejong Institute, an independent security think tank.

The dilemma for North Korea is much bigger. The impoverished country can't survive without outside help in the long run. Yet Kim Jong Il's priority has been keeping his regime at all costs. The result has been the North trying to squeeze out economic benefits after escalating its nuclear threats. "The dilemma for the North is that it will have to completely overhaul its system to lead the country out of poverty, but such changes will threaten the survival of the regime," says Yun at the Institute of Foreign Affairs.

Symbolic Move

Could the delisting from the terrorism list bring benefits to the North? Not immediately (, 6/30/08). In theory, the move makes North Korea eligible to receive aid from international financial institutions. But the delisting is symbolic, State Dept. officials note, as Pyongyang remains under numerous sanctions for a range of reasons and Washington retains leverage in the negotiations.

The hope is Kim Jong Il's successor will embrace reforms. Intelligence officials in Seoul and Washington say there is no evidence Kim is losing control, despite having recently suffered a serious health setback (, 9/10/08). Still, Andrei Lankov, North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, reckons radical changes are inevitable in the absence of Kim in North Korea. "There's little hope for the six-party talks to achieve the goal of denuclearizing North Korea, given the importance of nuclear arms attached by the Kim Jong Il regime," Lankov says. "But the talks have the potential to serve as an important diplomatic vehicle" in rebuilding post-Kim North Korea.

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