<%@LANGUAGE="VBSCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> WorldTribune.com: Mobile Don't ask, don't tell: North Korea gets much for declaring little

Don't ask, don't tell: North Korea gets much for declaring little

Friday, June 27, 2008 Free Headline Alerts

By Donald Kirk

SEOUL The United States is having to settle for a remarkable diplomatic about-face by accepting a long-delayed declaration from North Korea crafted to circumvent the critical issues that precipitated the nuclear "crisis" in 2002.

Next comes the spectacle of North Korea's demolition of the cooling tower at the Yongbyon complex covered by CNN for a rapt world.

President Bush on June 26 announced the removal of North Korean from the U.S. blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism and the lifting of economic sanctions thereby legitimizing the Kim Jong-Il regime.

While reluctantly acknowledging ill-defined concerns about a uranium program, North Korea avoids details on just what it has been doing to develop the capability of exploding a nuclear warhead with uranium at its core.

The declaration contains no clues about the caves and redoubts, the laboratories and production facilities where North Korean scientists are believed to have begun to learn how to fabricate a warhead from highly enriched uranium. It does not admit acquisition of centrifuges from the disgraced Pakistan physicist Abdul Qadeer Khan, and it says nothing about acquiring from his network the technology if not the materiel or the training and experience needed to go the final steps to production of a uranium bomb.

Nor does the declaration reveal anything about proliferation of North Korea's nuclear materiel, technology, training and expertise to other countries, notably to Syria, where the Israelis bombed a facility to oblivion in September. Similarly, it maintains silence on North Korea's history of nuclear exchanges with other Middle Eastern countries, notably Iran, which has long boasted of using highly enriched uranium for electrical power while denying any military purposes.

Equally important, the declaration leaves out the question of what North Korea has done with all the plutonium produced for warheads at its nuclear complex at Yongbyon, 100 kilometers north of Pyongyang. There's no word on how many warheads it has there, leaving intelligence analysts to repeat longstanding estimates of anywhere from six to a dozen.

After having insisted repeatedly that North Korea had to "come clean" on its uranium program and proliferation, and also account for all the plutonium warheads, the U.S. decided to forsake that approach in the interests of advancing the protracted process of getting North Korea finally to abandon the entire program.

The North Koreans promised last October to deliver the declaration by the end of last year, but held out for six months beyond then while spurning U.S. demands for far greater disclosure and transparency. The U.S. chief negotiator, Christopher Hill, indicated in a meeting with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-Gwan, in Singapore in April that simple acknowledgement of concerns might be a way out of the impasse.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, arriving in Japan on a swing that takes her to South Korea on the weekend and then on to Beijing, papered over the American climbdown with a face-saving promise to "continue to work for verifiable denuclearization". In a spirit of first things first, she said "we can have an upper hand in determining what may have happened in terms of weaponization" after "verifiably" finding out how much plutonium has been made.

The inference from the diplomatic speak is that the U.S. government has basically decided to shelve the uranium issue in the interests of moving on with the deal of February 13 of last year calling for North Korea's complete denuclearization in return for enormous amounts of energy aid.

U.S. analysts now say North Korea's enriched uranium program is so rudimentary as not to pose a threat, and North Korea has complied on the major point of stopping operations at Yongbyon preparatory to closing the facility altogether.

It is in that spirit that North Korea on Friday is staging one of the great made-for-TV stories, blowing up the cooling tower at the Yongbyon complex for the benefit of one television network from each of the five other signatories to the six-party agreement, including China, the host of the talks.

CNN correspondent Christian Amanpour, who visited the complex in February before the performance of the New York Philharmonic orchestra in Pyongyang and interviewed North Korea's nuclear negotiator, Kim, has arrived in Pyongyang.

Foreign diplomats, including Sung Kim, head of the U.S. State Department's Korea desk and a key figure in recent talks, also are expected to attend the explosion of the cooling tower. North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Il clearly sees that act as a dramatic way of convincing the world of his good intentions, though it's largely of symbolic rather than practical significance since North Korea has already gone quite far in disabling the Yongbyon complex.

Sung Kim whirled through Seoul on his way to Pyongyang but did not talk to reporters, possibly for fear of questions about traces of uranium discovered on some of the 18,000 documents that he and other U.S. officials carried from Pyongyang in May. North Korea turned over the documents to prove willingness to comply with the nuclear agreement, but discovery by analysts of the uranium traces offers further evidence of the existence of the program.

The North Korean declaration, however incomplete, marks another milestone in an epic series of events that began in October 2002 when James Kelly, then U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, visited Pyongyang. He said on his return that North Korea's vice foreign minister, Kang Sok-ju, had acknowledged the existence of a uranium program in addition to the plutonium program at Yongbyon that was suspended under terms of the 1994 nuclear framework agreement between the U.S. and North Korea.

Kang's supposed acknowledgement led the U.S. to stop shipping heavy fuel to North Korea as stipulated in the agreement and then led North Korea to expel inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency at the end of 2002 and resume fabrication of warheads from plutonium at Yongbyon in early 2003. At the same time, the Korean Peninsular Development Organization, known as KEDO, formed under the Geneva agreement to oversee construction near North Korea's east coast of twin light-water nuclear energy reactors by South Korea, Japan and others, ceased operations.

Negotiations for a new nuclear agreement gained urgency after North Korea fired off several missiles in early July 2006, including a long-range Taepodong that fizzled and splashed down near the takeoff site. It was after North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test on October 9, 2006, however, that diplomats scurried about in search of dialogue with a renewed sense of urgency.

Hill, who had replaced Kelly as assistant secretary of state, spearheaded the U.S. side with far greater freedom than Kelly ever had. He recommended that the U.S. sign on to a statement on September 19, 2005, in which the six parties agreed in general terms on the North's giving up its nukes.

North Korea refused to cooperate, however, after the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted Banco Delta Asia, an obscure bank in Macau through which North Korea was channeling counterfeit U.S.$100 bills. Cut off from international financial dealings, the North did not return to the table until Hill worked out a deal for transferring its funds out of Banco Delta Asia, via a Russia bank, and the Treasury Department removed it from the blacklist.

North Korea, in complying with the demand for a declaration, has bargained hard for two more understandings from the U.S. that would legitimize its leadership in the eyes of the rest of the world. The U.S. has agreed to take steps to remove North Korea from the State Department's list of nations sponsoring terrorism and also has promised to lift economic sanctions barring business with terrorist states.

The deal carries no guarantee, however, that North Korea will get rid of its nuclear weapons. All Hill would say is that "the North Koreas have acknowledged that we have to deal with weapons".

That's a problem, Hill went on, that "we're going to deal with as soon as we sit down again to begin to map out the remaining piece of this negotiation" an arduous process that's likely to go on interminably.

North Korea, meanwhile, is sure to demand much more aid, including those two light-water energy reactors promised in the 1994 Geneva framework agreement, as well as diplomatic relations with Washington and a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War which ended in 1953.

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