With its two-steps-forward one-step-back approach, North Korea has fulfilled its long-held nuclear ambition and for now holds back on further tests in return for an easing of UN sanctions. Diplomats suspect that in the long months of negotiations ahead North Korea will try to change the subject while carrying on production of fissile material. North Korea agreed to return to the Six-Party Talks on the condition that the US would negotiate about Macau bank accounts blocked by the US Treasury on charges of money-laundering. Even when the bank account issue is resolved, tortuous negotiations lie ahead while Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal is likely to grow.
Commonly accepted interpretation credits China for pressuring North Korea back to the negotiating table. But many seasoned observers see the North Korean move as a tactical shift to consolidate its gains and not a prelude to making concessions.
According to Paik Jin-Hyun, professor of international relations at Seoul National University, North Korea has agreed to return to the Six-Party Talks because the country has accomplished what it has long wanted to do. "It is time to shift gears," he says. The agreement to return to talks could also be due to Chinese pressure, he adds, "but one would never know."
Privately South Korean officials and analysts are skeptical about the US claim that resumption of talks is a major concession by North Koreans who had insisted on returning to the talks only if Washington lifted financial restrictions. When the talks resume in December, the subject will be restrictions imposed a year earlier on the charge of the North Korean counterfeiting US currency.
A senior US official said that, after a working lunch with his Chinese and North Korean counterparts, US negotiator Christopher Hill held a bilateral meeting with Kim Kye Gwan. Although the resumption of talks has been labeled unconditional, the North Koreans agreed to return only if the US would discuss and resolve the issue of frozen bank accounts. The US responded that the resolution would depend on North Korea’s response, but was willing to hold the talks.
"We do want to resolve these, but it also depends on the DPRK's [Democratic People's Republic of Korea) willingness to get out of the illicit activities business," Hill said.
The Chinese-sponsored Six-Party Talks involving North Korea, the US, South Korea, Japan and Russia started in 2003 and seemed to attain some success during the fourth round, in September 2005, when the parties agreed on a statement calling for Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees, energy and other assistance. However, the talks broke off last November after the US froze North Korean bank accounts.
North Korea is already benefiting from this shift in position. South Korea, which froze shipments of rice and fertilizer after the missile test in July, said it would resume sending aid. "North Koreans after all are our cousins," says a South Korean journalist critical of Pyongyang, "no matter what Kim Jong Il does, we simply cannot see them starve or ask international community to help."
An official of China's largest oil company, the state-controlled China National Petroleum Corp., was quoted as saying that China's oil exports to North Korea were likely to return to normal when talks get under way.
Meanwhile the only pressure on North Korea seems to be UN sanctions on imports of weapons-related components and luxury goods. South Korean officials make it clear that they will not halt their export-zone and tourism projects that bring foreign exchange to the cash-starved nation. South Korean domestic laws also stood in the way of that nation participating in the American Proliferation Security Initiative, which requires inspection by boarding vessels carrying North Korean goods. Now that North Korea has agreed to the talks, Seoul would be doubly reluctant to provoke North Korea with aggressive inspections at sea and, worse, provoke naval clashes with Pyongyang.
Will the application of UN sanctions now be softened? "No one has to worry about anybody going wobbly," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. But Paik believes Pyongyang will use its agreement to talk to deflect pressure and delay and elude sanctions.
Highly critical of South Korea’s sunshine policy, Paik says North Korea is applying salami tactics. By returning to the negotiating table, Pyongyang will turn the talk itself into another card to play. While preparation goes on for talks, the 6-megawatt reactors continue to function, accumulating plutonium to make more bombs. By the end of 2008, North Korea might have enough material for five or six bombs.
Meanwhile despite the strong American backing for South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon to assume the position of UN secretary general, US relations with its treaty-ally South Korea are showing signs of strain. US Assistant Secretary of State Hill kept Korean officials in the dark about his Beijing trip and quietly slipped into China from Hong Kong, where he had traveled ostensibly to discuss sanctions enforcement. Kept in the dark, officials in Seoul felt isolated when the news broke in Beijing about the resumption of talks.
As the North Korean news agency explained, Pyongyang decided to return to the Six-Party Talks "on the premise that the issue of lifting financial sanctions will be discussed and settled between the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and the US." North Korea, which had agreed in 2005 to discuss dismantling its nuclear program in exchange for material and security guarantees, now claims that the nuclear test was a "self-defensive counter-measure" against a gathering threat from the US. "The present development clearly testifies to the justice of the decision made by the DPRK to have access to nuclear weapons."
The tactic that Pyongyang is likely to adopt when talks resume was revealed in its statements made in the wake of the agreement for negotiations. While dispensing the usual invective toward Washington, the North Korean news agency reserved special insult for Japan, calling for its removal from the Six-Party Talks. With South Korea smarting at being kept in the dark – it’s not known if Tokyo and Moscow had prior knowledge – China, the original convener of the talks, has emerged as an even more important player. China delivered North Korea to the negotiating table and gained brownie points in Pyongyang by arranging the US-North Korea bilateral talks that Kim Jong Il had long wanted. When the Six-Party Talks resume later this year, they are likely to serve as a backdrop for these bilateral negotiations.
The question is: After succeeding in getting an American interlocutor face to face, will North Korea try to change the original purpose of the conversation, fighting to unfreeze the bank accounts and presenting that as the first tangible benefit from the nuclear test? More importantly, after the bank issue is resolved, will North Korea be more amenable to making concessions on the nuclear front or will it return to earlier demands that the Bush administration rejected? North Korea watcher Paik suspects that the opening gambit of the DPRK might be to present itself as a nuclear-weapon state and an equal partner of the US, asking for the global disarmament that his father Kim Il Sung had long demanded.
Whatever course the talks take, one thing is certain: While diplomatic jousting continues, Asia’s newest nuclear state will continue to accumulate plutonium for its bombs.
Nayan Chanda is Editor of YaleGlobal Online, and author of Bound Together: A Brief History of Globalization, to be published by Yale University Press in spring 2007. Rights: © 2006 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.