By Duyeon Kim
North Korea’s latest agreement with the U.S. on nuclear, missile and uranium enrichment moratoria is a positive and encouraging step forward, but the devil is in the details and Pyongyang’s fulfillment of those agreements.
It is a positive step forward because the two sides were deadlocked for months over food assistance and the regime’s uranium enrichment facility unconfirmed by official inspectors.
Washington and Pyongyang had neared an agreement on these details late last year, but the process was interrupted by the sudden death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011.
Two Statements, Two Versions
In a rare move, Washington and Pyongyang simultaneously released statements on the results of their February 23rd exploratory meeting in Beijing. While the overall gist and key points appear to be in sync, there are some differences in nuances and details. It should also be noted that these statements are not officially signed agreements.
The two sides have agreed on:
- North Korea’s nuclear, missile and uranium enrichment moratoria.
- The invitation of IAEA inspectors back to Yongbyon to verify the uranium enrichment moratorium.
- U.S. provisions of 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance and meeting again to finalize administrative details.
Some differences in the two statements are:
- The U.S. believes the return of IAEA inspectors includes confirmation activities of the disabled 5-megawatt reactor and related facilities that occurred during the Six Party Talks. North Korea does not mention this.
- Pyongyang believes priority will be given to U.S. provisions of light water reactors when the Six Party Talks resume, but Washington’s statement does not mention this long, controversial issue.
- When the Six Party Talks resume, the North also believes a priority will be given to the lifting of sanctions against it. The Washington statement only says, “U.S. sanctions against the DPRK are not targeted against the livelihood of the DPRK people.”
- The North believes Washington promised 240,000 tons of nutritional assistance “with the prospect of additional food assistance.” The U.S. statement does not mention “food” aid, another sensitive issue in the U.S.
Key Questions Unanswered
It seems clear that more discussions need to take place particularly in the details and logistics — for example, the method for halting North Korea’s uranium enrichment facility, the timing of bringing IAEA inspectors back into Yongbyon in relation to the timing of receiving nutritional assistance, and the physical limits (boundaries) for IAEA inspectors in Yongbyon.
South Korean media has reported that Pyongyang suggested it would be willing to “temporarily halt” its uranium enrichment facility using the “no-load operation” method to prepare for the day it would restart its uranium enrichment activities. This temporary halt would reportedly proceed until its uranium enrichment facility is proven to be for peaceful purposes.
“No-load operation” means that centrifuges would continue to spin (operate) without uranium fuel, which is used for actual enrichment. The purpose of the “no-load rotation” method would be to continue to optimize cascade operations and management because centrifuge rotors spinning at lower than normal speeds could lead to “crashing” or self-destruction due to possible violent vibrations. Technical experts say, the fraction of centrifuges that would crash is difficult to predict since it depends on the manufacturing quality of the North’s machines.
The U.S. and South Korea have been demanding a complete halt in uranium enrichment activities. Still, the reported “no-load operation” may be enough if it leads to IAEA access, but it remains to be seen whether Washington and Seoul will accept this method. The IAEA needs to inspect the regime’s pilot uranium enrichment facility, but the possibility of hidden plants remains a much greater concern.
The statements also do not mention Washington’s prerequisite of inter-Korean dialogue and reconciliation prior to U.S.-North Korea talks. Until now, Washington has been firm in its refusal to sideline Seoul in any negotiations with Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Un – Shift in Policy?
The latest deal occurred under the new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s watch, but it was in the works prior to his father Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011. It appears the young Kim will not stray far from his two predecessor’s main policies, namely their military and nuclear policies. This means he will hold on to the regime’s nuclear and missile programs while engaging in diplomatic negotiations to gain concessions – business as usual.
Six Party Talks & Long Road Ahead
If successfully implemented, the latest progress could lead to the resumption of Six Party talks, perhaps before the summer at best. However, once all six parties sit back down at the bargaining table, there will still be a long and tough road ahead.
Pyongyang’s statement gives an obvious clue: “Once the six-party talks are resumed, priority will be given to the discussion of issues concerning the lifting of sanctions on the DPRK and provision of light water reactors.” Washington has been firm that Pyongyang needs to denuclearize before sanctions are lifted. Light water reactors have long been a controversial key sticking point in negotiations. The Bush administration refused to provide light water reactors but the Obama administration has yet to publically reveal its stance. In the meantime, the North had declared it would build its own indigenous light water reactor.
Another complicated task will be the verification of past disablement measures and particularly the regime’s uranium enrichment activities as well as beginning to chart the path forward for even farther-reaching commitments in what is called the final “dismantlement phase” as agreed under previous six party accords.
The dilemma Washington and Seoul face is how demanding or flexible they should be in the name of bringing Pyongyang back to the six-way dialogue table. Progress in U.S.-North Korea talks would also need to be well coordinated with progress in inter-Korean relations if the Obama administration continues this policy.
Until now, the allies have been firm in their demands. But as they both face presidential elections at the end of this year, along with South Korean parliamentary elections in April, the allies may each need even a small political victory on North Korea.