North Korea’s nuclear bomb once again

By Jonathan Power

17th February 2015

If there is such a thing as a “frozen conflict” the best place to look is not in Eastern Europe but in Korea where after years of merciless war that ended in 1953 there was an armistice, a line was drawn across the Korean peninsular and its two halves went their separate ways- one, the south, to fast capitalist development and the other, the north, to stultifying dictatorship that seemed to do only one thing competently – build nuclear bombs. Today there is no war on the Korean peninsular but there is no peace.

Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all tried to negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear bomb program and to bring to a close the military stand-off between north and south. All their attempts have come to naught, not just because of North Korean stubbornness but also because of Republican majorities in Congress which have constantly undermined what seemed to be breakthroughs in negotiations.

Now Obama has summoned up the strength to return to the ring. The two countries’ nuclear envoys have been discussing the idea of “talks about talks”. A majority of long time observers are doubtful that after two decades of on/off negotiations that real progress can be made.

But they forget the major progress made by Clinton which culminated in an unprecedented visit to Pyongyang by his Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, which was meant to pave the way for Clinton’s own visit which was very likely to lead to major changes in the relationship. (The demands of the make or break Israel-Palestine-US negotiations in the last days of his administration meant it couldn’t be fitted in.)

Then after seven years of erratic US policies under President George W. Bush, his Administration’s negotiators ended up achieving almost the same as Clinton’s, albeit with no plan to take the final, big step, as Clinton was prepared to do.

The negotiations were masterminded by Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. Under her leadership Pyongyang’s twists and turns and often appalling misbehaviour were more tolerated than before. In September 2005, the US formally offered a non-aggression pledge and an offer, in principle, to normalise relations. It also resurrected discussion of the Clinton decision to help finance and build a ‘light water’ reactor that would help satisfy the North’s domestic power needs, without producing more bomb-making material. (The reactor sits half finished.) In return the North agreed to denuclearise and to open itself to international inspection.

Perhaps inevitably both sides interpreted the agreement differently. The North again became intransigent. In October 2006 it exploded an underground nuclear device. Nevertheless, Rice managed to persuade Bush to dilute the hostile rhetoric.

The Rice push continued forward. Fuel aid and food were offered as carrots. Surprisingly, the offer bore fruit. The North agreed to disable its nuclear weapons and other important facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. It also said it would allow back UN inspectors.
But when Washington stalled on removing the North from its terrorism list Pyongyang also stalled. Washington then capitulated on this. A deal was made, with the added bonus of the North agreeing to open up undeclared sites as well, but with the proviso that inspections were agreed to by ‘mutual consent’.

The negotiations came to a shuddering halt when North Korea carried out a second nuclear test. (Barack Obama had become president four months before.) Later it revealed that it had built a uranium enrichment plant, albeit at that time only enriching uranium to the low requirements of producing electricity not bombs.

Obama tried to pick up the pieces. In February 2012 in return for 240,000 tons of food aid the new North Korean regime agreed to allow UN inspectors to monitor its suspension of uranium enrichment. The North also agreed a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.

The agreement did not last long. In April the North launched a rocket containing a satellite, arguing this was a scientific not a military endeavour. (It broke up in mid-air.) Obama, I think mistakenly, decided to cancel the agreement. The US was backed up by all the members of the UN Security Council.

In December 2012 the North launched a missile that could possibly reach Los Angeles (but not able to carry a nuclear weapon). In February 2013 it made its third nuclear test. In one statement it said it was prepared to threaten a thermo-nuclear war.

Now, apparently, Obama is prepared to try again. Can this “frozen conflict” ever be unfrozen? We know it can. The North when it wants to does negotiate, albeit erratically. (Looked at from North Korea’s perspective, Washington itself is erratic.)

Can Obama this time bring about an agreement that has eluded his predecessors? The odds are stacked against him but if he can replicate the determination of Clinton it could be done.

© Jonathan Power 2015

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