North Korea Threatens Restart for Nuke Program

North Korea, demanding that the US first lift is economic sanctions, has declared it has stopped dismantling its nuclear weapons facilities in violation of the agreement with Washington in October last year to proceed with the so-called second-phase denuclearization process for “disabling” the Yongbyon nuclear facilities.

The August 26 foreign ministry statement from Pyongyang justified its move by accusing the administration of US President George W. Bush of failing to remove the regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move the US earlier promised it would take upon Pyongyang agreeing to a comprehensive verification mechanism to ensure the veracity of its denuclearization process.

As part of this broad accord, Pyongyang earlier in May performed a spectacular show of blowing up the nuclear cooling tower located at Yongbyon, in the presence of international media from the US and other countries to televise the scene. And in exchange for shipment of oil and food, the North has also handed over to the US a voluminous ledger detailing its clandestine activities of extracting plutonium fissile material from the Yongbyon reactor.

In the second phase of this nuclear dismantling process, the North has been removing spent fuel rods from which it had been culling plutonium.

Also in a separate memorandum signed between the two sides in Singapore, the North previously acknowledged it was involved in developing a second bomb-making process by way of enriching uranium through centrifuge equipment.

But the US has insisted on thoroughly verifying this process. In exchange for the US removal of Pyongyang from the list of state sponsors of terrorism – a well-deserved designation -- North Korean agents were behind the killing of 17 senior South Korean officials visiting Rangoon in 1983, Kim Jong Il admitted that his agents kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens to train spies in Japanese language and customs, and Kim’s agents were behind the mid-air explosion of a Korean Airlines flight killing all 150 people aboard in 1987 – the North had agreed to accept a comprehensive verification of its dismantling activities.

Now the foreign ministry statement indicates it will not accept any “international standard verification” including a challenge inspection. Indeed, it claims the question of international inspection of the North’s facilities will be reserved to the very end of the nuclear “disabling” process. Not only that, but any inspection procedure will mean all six nations involved in the Beijing process – the US, Japan, China, Russia as well as North and South Korea – simultaneously submitting themselves to equal inspection treatment. The North, in short, is saying it won’t accept any unilateral inspection or verification process.

These details, together with the carefully chosen timing for transmitting this message in the twilight months of the Bush administration’s office, in effect amount to an ultimatum: Either the US accept this condition or be resigned to a North Korea fully armed with nuclear weapons. It would also leave the uranium-enrichment program outside the purview of US concern.

It was clear Kim had given a lot of thought in choosing his timing. The announcement came an hour and half after the visiting Chinese President, Hu Jintao, had left Seoul after a two-day visit, during which he and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak agreed to continue the present six-party talks to press the North to give up its nuclear option. By releasing the statement well after Hu’s party had left South Korea, Kim appeared anxious to spare Hu from diplomatic embarrassment arising from his sudden move to raise his stake.

The announcement itself is a symbolic act as the North’s statement said the US, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea – countries involved in the six-party process in Beijing – had been informed of its decision to “suspend” the “disabling” activities days before. Both US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Christopher Hill, the chief US nuclear envoy, had repeatedly declared earlier that the North would be taken off the list only when it submitted itself to a comprehensive verification process.

In the last couple of weeks following the August 11 deadline for delisting the North (in accordance with the US law providing for a 45-day notification of this move to Congress), speculation had been rife that North Korea would sit out the time left for the current administration in Washington. In short, the North would take its time and wait it out so that it could start a new series of talks with the new administration that will come up in Washington following the November US presidential election.

A variety of analyses showed that Kim Jong Il preferred to start a new round of talks with the Democratic administration, especially as Barack Obama’s running mate Senator Joe Biden has been keen on using dialogue to settle the nuclear issue. Thus the foreign ministry statement was timed to coincide with the opening of the Democratic Party convention in Denver. Other analysts say Pyongyang is using the threat of resuming nuclear activities as further pressure on President Bush to respond, hopefully by foregoing the need for a stringent verification program.

Specifically, resumption of nuclear activities would mean the Kim Jong Il regime suspends the current removal of the remaining number of spent nuclear fuel rods from the main reactor core at the Yongbyon complex. Of 8,000 fuel rods to be removed under an accord with the US, the North has so far taken out more than 4,000. The North has fulfilled eight of 11 steps required in the complete “disabling” process, presumably meaning a complete shutdown of the reactor.

If the North goes ahead with its threat to stop this process, (the statement said the North was even considering “restoring” parts and facilities that have been so far disabled), it could bring the Yongbyon facility back to life in about a year’s time, analysts here say.

With just four months left for his office, the question facing President Bush is how to respond to this new blackmail. Should he blink first and remove the North from the terrorism list irrespective of the verification process in a move to save his diplomatic “legacy”? Or should he insist on getting a stringent verification mechanism at the cost of destroying the dismantling process?

Undoubtedly, Bush is facing a tough choice. Indeed, the fact that the North Korean brinkmanship arrived when the Bush administration was already beset with the Georgian crisis underscores the depth of his predicament.

For all that, it may not have been as surprising as the North would have hoped. Indeed, Seoul and Washington do not appear to have been caught entirely unaware. The North’s pattern of extortionist diplomacy is quite well known. It has a well-established pattern of switching between talks and blackmailing. Knowing this, there’s a sense of deja vu within the South Korean foreign ministry, with officials saying that the North’s choice of halting its disabling activities won’t bring it substantive rewards. Not only has the latest step reconfirmed its image as a rogue, untrustworthy negotiator; the task of restarting talks with the new administration will mean a long period of deprivation in the food supplies and energy shipment the North so acutely needs to survive.

So their reaction is far from panicky: the US, Japanese and South Korean officials appear to share a consensus that they should also wait it out. For the time being, their top priority is to keep the current six-party format alive, so as to keep Kim from walking out of the multilateral framework in total defiance.