Just when Kim Jong Il, the North Korean dictator, had evidently embarked on one of his occasional charm offensives — releasing hostages (two Americans and five South Koreans), sending envoys to the South for former President Kim Dae Jung’s funeral, and reopening some traffic across the Demilitarized Zone that divides the continent — he has also reminded the world that getting North Korea to get rid of its nuclear program will be as difficult as ever.
On Sept. 4, Pyongyang, via its state-run news agency, noted matter-of-factly that it was in the “last phase” of its uranium-enrichment program. It also added that it was open to “either sanctions or dialogue.”
And so, in all likelihood, the next round of nuclear diplomacy with North Korea has begun: the U.S. and its negotiating partners had patiently waited for the North to come out of its self-imposed isolation — it had said it would never return to the six-party talks and then earlier this year tested, sequentially, a second nuclear bomb and a long-range missile, both in express defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
The revelation that the North has a uranium-enrichment program (in addition to a plutonium program, which has been the focus of most of the diplomatic effort in recent years) and its assertion that the program is in its last stage now makes the next phase of diplomatic engagement that much more difficult.
If the goal is to get North Korea to give up all its nuclear weapons and the ability to make them, the outside world has to convince Pyongyang to get rid of both an old plutonium project as well as the uranium program — which had become the stuff of bitter controversy during the presidency of George W. Bush. Career State Department officials were hesitant to confront the North with the intelligence in the fall of 2002 that there was a program for highly enriched uranium (HEU), while Bush Administration officials, such as John Bolton — one of the so-called neocons, then serving as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs — wanted to use it (and did) as “the hammer I had been looking for to shatter” the nuclear deal done by the Clinton Administration, as Bolton once put it.
Once the U.S. re-engaged with North Korea under Bush, the CIA walked back a bit from its assessment that Pyongyang had a secret uranium-enrichment program, saying during a congressional hearing in 2007 that the intelligence community was assured only at “mid confidence level” that the North had a uranium-enrichment program.
Its confidence, it turns out, should have been higher.
At best, according to diplomats in East Asia, it means the North’s diplomatic price for any kind of agreement has probably gone up.
At worst, it may mean what pessimists about the North have long been saying: that Pyongyang, under this regime, anyway, has no intention of ever giving up its nukes.
The North’s “strategic goal,” says Park Hyong Joong of Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification, is to be accepted as a nuclear power.
The Obama Administration, since coming into office, has not deviated from the goal set by the previous two administrations: not accepting the North as a nuclear power, but being more willing than its immediate predecessor to talk directly with Kim & Co. in order to arrive at a deal. That’s still likely to be the case — even if the diplomatic nuclear brief just got a bit more complicated — and Stephen Bosworth, Obama’s special envoy to the North, was purposefully bland in reacting to the HEU announcement from Pyongyang.
“Obviously, anything the North is doing in the area of nuclear development is of concern to us,” he said after meetings in Beijing. Coincidentally — or not — the Deputy Foreign Minister of North Korea has just returned from his own meetings in Beijing.
A leading North Korea watcher in Seoul, Cheong Seong Chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, believes the groundwork is being set for Beijing-hosted three-way talks among the U.S., North Korea and China, at which the Chinese will “sneak out of the room, leaving the two sworn enemies” to talk.
The sudden flurry of diplomatic activity from the North prompts many North Korea watchers, both inside and outside government, to conclude tentatively that Kim Jong Il has made a better recovery from a stroke he reportedly suffered a year ago.
They attribute the belligerence in the first eight months of this year to a regime whose top leadership seemed suddenly vulnerable. But Kim and his allies have apparently successfully installed Kim Jong Un, Kim’s youngest son, as his likely successor.
In fact, reports from some nongovernmental organizations operating in the North say that a public propaganda campaign promoting Jong Un has ceased.
That means, says Cheong, that the “succession has reached a stable trajectory.” Kim Jong Il, in other words, is back in the saddle again. Whether that’s a good thing or not is what the outside world will soon find out.