Kim Jong Il Comes Sort of Clean on His Nukes

North Korean ambassador Choe Jin Su is not exactly a star on Beijing’s diplomatic cocktail circuits, but on June 26, a day after the Korean War anniversary which his country still insists was started by the United States and South Korea, he did perform one credible duty under the watch of the international community.

At around 5:30 that afternoon, the grim-looking envoy stepped into the office of Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Wu Dawei and handed him a 60-page dossier. In it were the details of the North’s key nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and the amount of plutonium, a vital bomb-making fissile material, extracted there. Thus ends the second phase of five-year negotiations to denuclearize North Korea.

Much of the information inside the dossier is already known. The outlines of the declaration had been negotiated through the years and they were hardly exciting. Under a not-so-secret deal arrived at between the US and North Korea in Singapore in April, the North was supplying details on its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon and the amount of plutonium extracted so far from its 5-megawatt reactor. After that, the normally hyper-secretive Kim Jong Il regime was inviting TV networks from the US, Japan, Russia and South Korea to film the dramatic scene of dynamiting the nuclear cooling tower on 27 June.

While that made good propaganda footage, doubts were cropping up from Seoul to Tokyo and Washington.

“The government views this as providing a foundation for the next phase of nuclear dismantlement,” said Seoul’s foreign minister Yu Myung Hwan. “But it’s regrettable that information was lacking on the number of bomb devices.”

That at once raises the pivotal question of exactly how much plutonium the North has. American officials believe it should be about 60kg, enough to make six to 10 bombs, but the North is insisting on 37kg. These questions are for analysts from the five nations participating in the six-party talks in Beijing to sort out.

US President George W. Bush, who in 2002 called North Korea a part of the “axis of evil” along with Iran and Syria, was equally circumspect. “The US has no illusions about the regime,” he said, seeking to allay concerns on Capitol Hill over the deal, which is regarded by critics as insufficient. The message Bush wanted to convey was, in his own words: “We will trust you only to the extent you fulfill your promises… This [declaration] is the first step…it is the beginning of the process.”

That was hardly modest. The declaration contained no details on the separate bomb-making project based on the North’s uranium-enrichment process. Nor was there any information regarding proliferation: exactly what role the North played in providing technology and infrastructure for Syria’s nuclear development efforts. The Singapore deal touched on these questions only indirectly, with the North “acknowledging” the US concern over these issues, but no assurance when or whether they will come up for further negotiation.

With the Bush administration nearing the end of its terms in office, it appears more and more likely that it will be up for the next administration to continue talks. However, the declaration does mention the North’s stock of uranium ore: it is one of the few Asian countries that actually mines it.

Against this modest amount of information, the US, Japan and South Korea must continue their arduous course of further negotiations. At each turn of the talks, the North has put up new demands, so much so that it has delayed the declaration, agreed last September, by a full six months. But its foot-dragging has brought Pyongyang considerable gifts: the North has extorted another significant concession in the form of half a million tonnes of cereals to alleviate its impending famine, on top of the original package itself costing the five nations – the US, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea – economic aid equivalent to 1 million tonnes of heavy oil.

But Washington is moving ahead on the principle of “action-for-action” deal it agreed in 2007. The US has moved quickly to remove the North from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. It’s also taking Pyongyang out of trade sanctions imposed under the Trading With the Enemy Act, leaving Cuba the only country still under it. Theoretically but not yet practically, these will allow the North to approach international institutions for loans and aids without facing Washington’s veto power.

That, however, doesn’t mean Pyongyang will surface fully onto the international mainstream. Other forms of sanctions, including the UN resolution barring trade of any weapons with the North, will remain in force.

In the course of 45 days required under the law to notify Congress of Bush’s decision, analysts from the five nations including China and Russia are to examine the declaration’s contents closely, through onsite inspections and interviews with North Korean scientists. They will undoubtedly receive help from International Atomic Agency specialists, but the process of negotiating this deal has been guided chiefly by the US, not IAEA. That means another slap on the authority of the UN watchdog agency, following their complete ignorance of Israel’s plan to bomb the suspect Syrian plant last year.

The trickiest part lies in the verification process. Without a full undeterred access to Yongbyon and its facilities, the whole process can’t reach the next phase of complete denuclearization, a goal pursued by the US, Japan and South Korea. It is on this point that they are becoming increasingly skeptical, with the North sending signals that providing information on uranium-based program is the last thing on its mind.

According to Jack Pritchard, the Clinton administration expert on the North, Pyongyang wants the US to treat it as a permanent nuclear state, along with India, Pakistan and Israel. It’s not a proposition shared by the US, given the North’s nature as a pariah state. With Japan and South Korea strongly committed to stopping that possibility, the US Congress is putting up new roadblocks aimed at dampening the Bush administration’s deal with Kim Jong Il. Lawmakers have introduced legislation requiring the US President to “certify” that the North has not provided nuclear technology to Syria, Iran or other countries before removing Pyongyang from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. That can seriously cripple power of the next administration in dealing with the North’s nuclear challenge.

Meanwhile, the current deal also has some significant implications for Japan. Not only does Tokyo feel alienated by the Bush administration’s relatively unilateral move with the North, it feels the question of abduction of Japanese nationals by the North being neglected by the nuclear deal.

US assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill has urged his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye Gwan to move forcefully on this issue, so that Japan will help with removing the terrorist label from Pyongyang. Its agreement to “reinvestigate” the infamous cases of individuals kidnapped off the streets of Japan and spirited to North Korea indicates the North may be rethinking this issue for early resolution. Progress on this issue is also vital for Japan as it remains a major source of future economic aid for the North.

As for progress in relations with the South, the denuclearization process certainly helps to reinforce détente on the peninsula over the long term. But the inauguration of the conservative Lee Myung Bak administration has temporarily brought a measure of tension as the South is now demanding reciprocity for economic aid. While President Lee is not exactly insisting on Kim Jong Il come out clearly on the uranium-based bomb program, it’s clearly a part of the overall nuclear challenge posed by Pyongyang. It would be politically risky for Lee to back down from his election pledge to withhold aid until and unless Kim makes significant moves on the nuclear front.