North Korea Wins Nuclear Poker Round

NEW DELHI – By announcing that it would return to the negotiation table and address the major powers’ concerns about its nuclear program, North Korea may have scored an unlikely but impressive diplomatic victory.

Pyongyang’s move has put on the mat top officials of the United States and its East Asian allies, Japan and South Korea. It has also narrowed China’s options in dealing with North Korea.

The outcome of the talks, involving six parties, will have important consequences for the future of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime, which already stands badly shaken. The six states are North Korea, the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

When North Korea conducted its maiden nuclear test on Oct. 9, the world unanimously condemned it and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolved to impose sanctions on Pyongyang.

But less than a month later, resumption of the Six-Party Talks has become imminent. The negotiations broke off a year ago, two months after North Korea agreed in principle to scrap its nuclear weapons programme.

”This answers, at least for the moment, a question that a lot of strategic experts have been asking: will Pyongyang’s blast facilitate, or will it further delay, negotiations involving the U.S.”, says Achin Vanaik, an independent nuclear affairs analyst and professor of International Relations and Global Politics at Delhi University. ”The answer is now clear, despite the insistence of the Security Council, and the U.S. in particular, that the agreed sanctions must continue.”

A second question, according to Vanaik, is whether the world can put the nuclear genie back in the bottle in the North Korean case. So far, such an effort has succeeded in only a handful of instances: Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and Libya.

But in all these cases, barring perhaps South Africa’s, the countries concerned had not conducted or acknowledged a nuclear weapons test. By contrast, North Korea overtly crossed the nuclear threshold. If it is persuaded or pressured to roll back its nuclear weapons program, that would be the first case of its kind.

North Korea’s agreement to return to the Six-Party format followed trilateral discussions last Tuesday in Beijing between the U.S., China and North Korea. Earlier, China extracted a public declaration from Pyongyang that it would not conduct further nuclear tests.

North Korea now seems to have decisively shifted the terms of the Six-Party Talks. Until last year, the negotiations were meant to freeze Pyongyang’s non-nuclear status, without guarantees of its regime’s stability. Now, the talks will be about reversing North Korea’s de facto nuclear weapons status.

This is unlikely to happen in the absence of tight security guarantees for North Korea plus a package of energy and economic incentives, say observers in India, which crossed the nuclear weapons threshold with a series of surprise tests in 1998.

One of the first assurances that North Korea’s dialogue partners are likely to seek is that it will not allow its nuclear know how or materials to leave its borders. North Korea is likely to use this as a lever with which to drive a hard bargain which, among other things, guarantees stability and security of its regime.

The stiff sanctions mandated by the Security Council, including halting bank transactions, inspecting cargo and intercepting ships at sea, are unlikely to neutralize this bargaining counter.

China and Russia are both reluctant to enforce the toughest part of the sanctions. China has said it would not intercept North Korean ships at sea. The New York Times has reported that China is not putting trans-shipments meant for North Korea through thorough inspections at its land-border crossings.

Interception of ships of a sovereign state on the high seas is problematic in international law. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, such interception is only permitted to prevent piracy, narcotic drugs movement or slave trade. The U.S. is not a party to the Convention, but is bound by customary international law.

China is reluctant to push Pyongyang into a recalcitrant stance for fear that instability in North Korea will affect its own troubled northeastern region, regarded as China’s "rust belt," with high rates of factory closures and industrial unrest. About 40 percent of North Korea’s total foreign trade is with China, most of it across the 1,400 km common border.

However, China has made its displeasure with North Korea’s nuclear test known to Pyongyang. It used usually harsh language to condemn the test. As Susan L. Shirk, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia argues, Beijing saw "the timing of the nuclear test – during the Chinese Communist Party’s most important annual meeting, the day after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Chinese President Hu Jintao – as a deliberate slap in the face."

China would like to portray itself as a "responsible" nuclear power, which is interested in defending the global non-proliferation regime.

Above all, China is also keen to normalize its relations with Japan and restrain it and South Korea from responding to North Korea’s nuclearization by developing a nuclear weapons capability.

It is not without significance that Abe’s first foreign visit after taking over as prime minister was not to the U.S. but to China. And Beijing would like to see itself playing a balancing role in Northeast Asia.

”This combination of calculations is likely to change the rules of the nuclear poker now being played out in North Korea and its neighborhood,” says N.D. Jayaprakash a researcher with the independent Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace that is based in the Indian capital.

”The central issue now is whether the U.S. will moderate its stand vis-à-vis North Korea, which it has declared to be an "Axis of Evil" state. This was a recipe for inept diplomacy, which led to the squandering away of the gains made through the signing of the Agreed Framework between the U.S. and North Korea during the Clinton presidency in 1994,” Jayaprakash said.

Under that agreement, North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear activities in return for guarantees of fuel oil supply and a light-water nuclear power reactor. After the agreement’s non-implementation, North Korea walked out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003.

The Six-Party Talks that followed yielded no results. Just days after North Korea signed the Beijing Declaration in September 2005, pledging to abandon its nuclear weapons pursuit, the U.S. imposed harsh financial sanctions on it. The Six-Party process ground to a halt.

If the coming talks lead to a security guarantee and economic/energy assistance package for Pyongyang, the U.S. would be relatively well-placed to secure China’s strong support in getting North Korea to roll back its nuclear weapons program.

”If they fail, the world would have a serious nuclear proliferation problem on its hands, which would hold a negative object lesson for would-be nuclear states like Iran, not to speak of Japan and South Korea,” Jayaprakash said.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau’s Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.