Kim Jong-Il’s Libyan Solution for his Bomb

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The frozen US$25 million in funds from Macau’s Banco Delta Asia -- the fulcrum of the US-North Korea denuclearization pact – reached a Russian bank Saturday, according to the Associated Press, clearing the way for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to head for North Korea to inspect the country's Yongbyon nuclear facility, which is expected to be shut down within three weeks.

The inspectors had been held in Seoul briefly after a North Korean diplomat, recalcitrant to the end, refused to give permission for the IAEA officials to go north until the money had been officially received. But while North Korea is nothing if not enigmatic, the country now appears to be reassessing its strategic position before moving off in a new direction that hopefully would allow the region and the world to breathe easier.

Pyongyang appears to be using the current opening for a “comprehensive” deal in which it accepts denuclearization for a package of political and economic survival. After a dozen years of pursuing the goal of opening relations with the United States while keeping its bomb, the dictator Kim Jong-Il may now be looking for a modest Libyan model of abandoning the weapon to ensure his regime’s survival.

There are signs of change backing up this interpretation. In the first substantive talks with US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill in Pyongyang on 22 June that stretched to four and a half hours, chief North Korean nuclear envoy Kim Kye Gwan declared that his country was ready to “promptly” shut down its main nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, and have it sealed by inspectors from the IAEA as soon as the last week of June.

Hill, speaking at a news conference in Seoul after the visit, said it would be a matter of just a few weeks before the shutdown occurs. He described his talks with Kim as being “detailed, substantive and useful.” Not only was he warmly received at the airport in sharp contrast to frosty reception given to his predecessor James Kelley five years ago, Hill was entertained with late-evening drinks.

A new line of diplomacy is evident, tempered undoubtedly by failure of the past adventurist course, which was marked by repeated rocket rattling and a highly publicized – if ineffective – underground nuclear test last October which led to suspension of talks and brought further isolation.

The new strategic choice may also have been prompted by China’s growing irritation. In preparation for the Olympic Games next year, China is running out of patience dealing with crises from Pyongyang. Beijing endorsed the toughly-worded UN resolution against Kim’s nuclear blast, and helped push the milestone 13 February agreement at the six-party talks. Now China is sending its new foreign minister Yang Jiechi to Pyongyang 2-4 July for further consultations.

Seoul is similarly more upbeat. Chun Yung Woo, the South’s chief nuclear negotiator, said chief delegates to the six-party talks – the US, Japan, China, Russia and South and North Korea – would meet shortly to consider the rest of roadmap for implementation of the February agreement. This is expected to be followed, in short order, by a meeting of foreign ministers of the six for discussion of a long-term arrangement for the North. It would bring US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice face to face with North Korea’s new foreign minister Pak Ui Chun and other counterparts at a formal international conference, probably to be the most important confab on the Korean peninsula since the 1953 armistice.

For this process to work out, however, the Kim regime has to stand strongly on transparency and access. It means full accounting for the 5-megawatt reactor, the plutonium reprocessing facility, fuel-rod fabrication plant, two other reactors under construction outside the area. Most important of all will be its readiness to come clean on how much plutonium and what equipments it has for enriching uranium. Officials in Seoul believe the North may have as much as 50kg of plutonium, and that it has purchased a significant number of centrifuges from Pakistan for processing for its uranium-based bomb project. Nobody is certain at this stage how truthfully the North will account for the material and equipment.

To discourage cheating, some US officials have suggested that the US pay for these materials, applying the so-called Ukraine model used by the United States in 1991 to denuclearize the country following the collapse of Soviet Union. No such proposal has been made yet.

South Korea, worried that a violent collapse of the Kim regime in Pyongyang could send floods of North Korean refugees to the south, is not totally averse to such a scheme. Indeed, that argument partly justifies the present government’s aid policy.

While such a possibility worries all countries in the region including China and Japan, nobody is strongly confident yet that Pyongyang is committed to holding the new line of dialogue. A somber-looking Hill, speaking to reporters on his trip to Pyongyang, said even while he was “buoyed by a sense that we are going to be able to achieve our full objectives, that is complete denuclearization,” he was also “burdened by the realization that we’re going to have to spend a great deal of time, a great deal of effort, a lot of work in achieving these [goals].” In short, he was by no means underestimating the North’s capacity for recidivism.

Seoul shares that caution despite the euphoria created by President Roh Moo Hyun’s one-sided reconciliation drive. Also the North’s attitude towards the South could harden if Roh’s liberal government is replaced at the coming presidential election in December by the hard-line conservative opposition Grand National Party.

Conversely, such an outlook could also hasten Kim Jong Il to resolve his nuclear dilemma and push him to open relations with the United States and Japan as a way of ensuring the stability of his regime with aid and foreign support. Besides, he can afford to denuclearize without appearing weak by citing the death-bed will of his father, the nation’s founder Kim Il Sung, who called for the reunification of North and South Korea. What appears increasingly likely at this stage is that Kim may be considering a major change in policy. In the face of unswerving opposition to his possession of nuclear weapons that has been demonstrated by the US, Japan and even his erstwhile friends Russia and China, he appears to be be backing down from the socalled Indian model -- having his cake and eating it too by opening relations while keeping the bomb.

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