Kim Jong-il Nears his End-game

As North Korea dithers, delays and postulates about its submissions of its nuclear programs, the world is waiting to see what will happen. However, there are plenty of reasons for the deal to come to completion. Much of the outside world is concerned about security issues, but all parties, for various reasons, have an eye on something that is just as crucial: Money.

At first, North Korea's underground nuclear test in October 2006 seemed a foolish move by a country hungry to make deals with the rest of the world. The global condemnation was instantaneous, even from North Korea's closest ally, China. In addition, the test made the six-party deal signed in September 2005, already in a quagmire, appear finished. Yet Kim Jong-il’s decision to test nuclear weapons and long-range missiles is having its desired effect economically, as well as giving new momentum to the six-party talks, adding another element to the self-interest driving each of the countries at the bargaining table.

It also pushed the United States toward sitting down bilaterally with North Korea, something it had long vowed not to do. In October 2007, with the talks moving forward again, Kim Jong-il met separately in Pyongyang with the heads of South Korea and Vietnam. He signed numerous economic deals with President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea, with whom the North is still technically at war, including inter-Korean train service and a new tourist site on Mount Kumgang near the border with China.

After meeting in October with Noc Duc Manh, the secretary general of Vietnam's communist party, Kim reportedly expressed admiration for the country's doi moi economic reform and openness policy, adopted in 1986. Vietnam's government fought a war with the United States decades ago, but now has a thriving economy and strong relations with its former enemy. Kim Jong-il has expressed a desire to mirror the fellow communist country's story.

Pyongyang’s road to economic security got a big lift when the North heightened its military security. However, each of the other five nations has strong economic reasons – in addition to their security concerns – for bringing a denuclearization deal to fruition. Only days after the September 2005 agreement had been reached, the U.S. Treasury Department announced it had evidence that North Korea was counterfeiting U.S. currency and laundering the money at a small financial institution called Banco Delta Asia, in Macao. North Korea angrily walked away from the bargaining table and talks didn't resume for more than a year.

In 2006, with the talks going nowhere, North Korea surprised most of the world by firing a long-range Taepodong 2 missile into the Sea of Japan. Although the missile failed about 40 seconds into the launch and landed some 200 miles west of Japan, Pyongyang once again got the world’s attention. Then, on October 9 of that year, North Korea conducted its underground nuclear test. Although intelligence officials have said the output was less than expected and there is some question as to whether the test was even successful, Pyongyang began to claim it was a nuclear power. Neighboring countries, including Japan and South Korea, heightened their military awareness.

In response, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1718, which bans countries from any trade involving weapons of mass destruction or luxury goods into or outside of North Korea. However, the resolution appears to have had little effect on the country's overall trade. According to media reports, cargo trucks still continue to come in and out of North Korea all along its border with China, including the major port in Dandong.

Cognizant of its newfound bargaining power, North Korea returned to the six-party talks on Oct. 31, 2006. Although the first round of discussions in Beijing ended in failure, the North Korean delegation suggested a bilateral discussion with the United States at another location.

The George Bush administration had vowed again not to meet face-to-face with North Korea only weeks before. However, the hardliners were losing power inside the Bush administration, and as the situation in Iraq continued to degenerate, the lame-duck president was more interested in a foreign policy victory.

The two sides agreed to meet quietly in Berlin, where the Bill Clinton administration had conducted negotiations of its own with the North.

To mark the beginning of the new year 2007, North Korea issued its annual editorial through the KCNA, the state-run news agency. In it, the country announced that its "overall national defense capabilities" had been "significantly strengthened," and that "the dawn has broken on the great, prosperous and powerful nation."

Later that month, Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. envoy to the six-party talks, helped iron out a preliminary deal.

On Feb. 13, North Korea agreed to shut its primary nuclear facility, Yongbyon, and declare all of its nuclear programs. In return, it would ultimately receive 1 million tonnes of heavy fuel oil as well as other economic aid.

Each of the countries involved in the six-party talks have their own motives for pursuing a deal with North Korea beyond the obvious, which is taking away a weapon of mass destruction that could be used or sold to other nations by an unpredictable, rogue character.

For the United States, the Bush administration has lurched and struggled toward a coherent policy regarding North Korea – but is now hoping for a rare foreign policy breakthrough that Bush could use to point to his legacy.

Bush entered office in 2001, expressing disdain for Bill Clinton's policy of engagement with the North. He famously also expressed disdain for Kim Jong-il, saying, "I loathe" him, and comparing him to a pygmy. However, many U.S. presidents with a distaste for foreign policy end up realizing, by the end of their terms, that is an area in which they can make a strong difference.

The neoconservatives, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, held sway early-on in the Bush administration. While a clear policy to North Korea has never been articulated, the hardliners disparaged the idea of any bilateral talks, said the Banco Delta financial issues would never be negotiated and vowed that a nuclear program in North Korea would not be tolerated. Eventually, all of those things did occur.

After Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state in 2005, a more pragmatic approach slowly won out over the principled stance of the neocons. That is because the United States was finally forced to acknowledge that such an approach was in its own interest for many reasons. Regarding security, any proliferation of nuclear weapons by North Korea to other countries could be a serious threat. A denuclearization deal helps the United States avoid military action at a time it is spending billions to keep troops in Iraq. It also helps keep stability in northeast Asia, home to three of its biggest trading partners: China, Japan and South Korea. Ultimately, though, it gives Bush something to point to after he leaves office in January 2009.

China, too, has its own high hopes for a deal. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, which had been North Korea’s benefactor, China has become Pyongyang's biggest trading partner. Should North Korea establish diplomatic relations with the United States and other countries, its improved economic engine could provide business opportunities for Chinese firms. In addition, such an agreement could provide stability to a country which could implode at any time.

China still maintains a policy of sending North Korean refugees back, even though the defectors face severe punishment, even death. That policy, at least in part, is due to its fears that starving refugees would enter the country en masse, putting a strain on China's limited resources.

Through its actions, China has demonstrated that it wants to keep North Korea stable and safe. A denuclearization agreement accomplishes both of those goals.

Russia, which has a small border with North Korea and limited fears about an influx of refugees, also has an economic interest in the six-party talks. In mid-December of 2007, Russia agreed to hold talks with North and South Korea about linking Korea's peninsula with the Trans-Siberian railway. The leaders envision cargo trains that could deliver up to 200,000 containers a year from South Korea to Europe, and vice versa, on a train trip that could take 10-12 days. Russia has also held separate talks with North Korea about train service between the two formerly close allies.

Japan's biggest interest in the deal is security, but it has also made a strong push to reclaim its citizens which North Korea abducted during the past decade. The two sides have not reached any agreements yet on that issue.

South Korea, too, has had citizens abducted by North Korea, but it has not made a big issue out of that during past decade, in which the liberal administration has been careful not to antagonize its neighbor. However, that may change. On Dec. 19, conservative Lee Myung-bak was elected president. He is scheduled to take office in February. He has vowed to push North Korea on the issue.

South Korea is still technically at war with North Korea, because the two sides only agreed on a cease-fire to end the Korean War in 1953. However, most citizens don't fear that hostilities will resume.

Instead, the past decade has included two face-to-face summits between the presidents of South Korea and Kim Jong-il. At those meetings, much of the discussions were driven by economics.

Some of the key agreements signed Oct. 4 include a special "peace zone" in the Yellow Sea, in which the two countries will have a joint fishing zone and the unadulterated passage of vessels through their maritime boundaries. They also agreed to expand inter-Korean train traffic, to service the Kaesong industrial complex, which combines North Korean workers and South Korean technology and management. They also plan a joint shipbuilding yard on North Korea's west coast.

Although security and other forms of cooperation were widely discussed, the economic plans formed the cornerstone of the deal.

Through December of 2007, the agreement has held. Most recently, George Bush sent Kim Jong-il a handwritten note, urging him to follow through on the deal. It was warmly received, North Korea’s news agency reported.

The North is shutting down its nuclear reactors and has held discussions with the United States about resuming diplomatic relations.

It is hard to argue that the North had military objectives in mind, first and foremost, with its military test. The test it conducted in October 2006 did not yield the powerful blast that would be expected of a full-scale detonation. In addition, experts agree that North Korea does not have the ability to mount a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile. But those objectives were more political than they were military. Surely, the North wanted to strengthen its economy by its show of military strength.

Even if North Korea did attack another country with a nuclear weapon, what would it gain? The country would almost certainly be destroyed with a retaliatory nuclear strike under the agreements the United States has with Japan and South Korea. In addition, North Korea would have no incentive to strike those countries, or Russia or China, for that matter.

Kim Jong-il may be controversial and disliked, but in the nearly 15 year period since he assumed period, he has shown great skill in one important matter: survival.