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Nuclear North Korea: Politics of Six-Way Talks

Regional and international geopolitics have undergone tectonic shifts. Beijing's foreign policy objectives are now aimed at ensuring its "peaceful rise" and, in this context, it does not want an aggravation of tensions on the Korean peninsula. Washington also had its own reasons to cut a deal now.

Nuclear North Korea: Politics of Six-Way Talks

Regional and international geopolitics have undergone tectonic shifts. Beijing’s foreign policy objectives are now aimed at ensuring its “peaceful rise” and, in this context, it does not want an aggravation of tensions on the Korean peninsula. Washington also had its own reasons to cut a deal now.


orth Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) has long bedevilled analysts about its nuclear programmes. Phrases such as, “hermit nuclear kingdom”, “rogue nation”, “a daunting prospect for nuclear inspectors”, and so on are commonly used to describe its nuclear production lines, bombs and materials. What is doubtless is that North Korea conducted its first plutonium bomb test on October 9 last year, having earlier test-fired ballistic missiles on July 5.

Naturally, the US – the predominant nuclear and hegemonic power with strong regional military allies, economic interests, and strategic objectives – strongly disapproves of such nuclear capabilities and a potential threat. Neutralising North Korea’s nuclear potential has been Washington’s prime geopolitical and military objective. This is now achieved with the active support of Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul and Moscow – all party to the six-way talks with Pyongyang and each securing its advantage, thus, temporarily stemming tension on the Korean peninsula.

Economic and Political Weekly March 3, 2007

The six-way talks that have been on and off since 1994 have now led to a deal in which North Korea has agreed “to shut down, seal, and eventually abandon its main nuclear facility at Yongbyon”. In “return the United States and four other nations reached a tentative agreement to provide North Korea with roughly $ 400 million in fuel oil and aid”. The accord “sets a 60-day deadline for North Korea to accomplish those first steps toward disarmament”. The next undefined step, subject to future negotiations, is for the actual removal of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and fuel manufactured to produce them.

Why did North Korea agree to give up its sovereign right to test nuclear weapons for self-defence purposes and/or for generating much needed nuclear energy? For these are the main arguments advanced by most nuclear nations and de facto ones justifying their ambitions, while hypocritically denying similar rights to other nations with equivalent objectives.

The answer is that North Korea’s nuclear record, depending on which nation is evaluating it, is sorely wanting. The US declared it “an axis of evil” for sponsoring state terrorism and acquiring weapons of mass destruction, alongside Iran and Iraq in 2002. North Korea consequent to its nuclear test has been slowly brought to heel by the UN economic sanctions of October 2006, at the instance of Japan, US, China and Russia. What is conveniently forgotten is that North Korea agreed in 1994 “to suspend indefinitely its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for direct negotiations and aid from the United States”. The Clinton administration wasn’t keen to realise the 1994 deal known as the Agreed Framework. The deal obligated it “to help North Korea acquire modern, light water nuclear reactors that would produce energy but not weapons.” Had this path then been vigorously pursued by the US, North Korea may not have exploded a nuclear weapon in 2006.

The Bush administration steadfastly abandoned the successful one-on-one negotiations path with Pyongyang, which North Korea repeatedly requested. The US’ refusal was based on North Korea’s “small uranium project” which violated the agreement. Equipment for it was acquired from the secret network of the Pakistani nuclear scientist A Q Khan. This led to suspension in 2002 of fuel oil shipments, as part of the Agreed Framework, by the Bush administration. North Korea, in turn, declared the 1994 deal null and void and resumed plutonium production. Regarding the “small uranium project”, Robert Templar, director of the Asia Group at the International Crisis Group, comments that, “They [North Korea] were trying to do a bit of enrichment. But it was pretty basic. They didn’t have anything like a cascade and there’s no sign that they had any fissionable uranium.” This was in 2002. In 2003, North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and freed itself from international inspection.

David Albright, director of the Institute for Science and International Security, in an interview, ‘How Not to Deal with North Korea’, with Richard Bernstein, published in The New York Review of Books (3), March 1, 2007, says, “The North Korean centrifuge was completely hyped up”. Albright declares that “there is nothing to indicate that Pyongyang has acquired “the hard stuff”, the magnets and superstrong steel needed for a cascade. (Because the centrifuges have to spin at extremely high speeds to produce enriched uranium, their assembly into a cascade requires exceptional precision and stability)”. Bernstein adds, “this was untrue in 2002, and it remains untrue now.”

Paradoxically, it is the one-on-one approach that paved the way to the successful six-way talks. Reportedly a meeting in Berlin, between US assistant secretary of state, Christopher Hill and North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye Gwan, led to a deal. The details were to hammer “a nuclear deal – building on an earlier mention at the talks of ending restrictions that had frozen DPRK accounts in a Macau bank”. The key factor is reported to be an US pledge “to resolve an investigation, within 30 days, against the Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia”, which has been the main conduit for funds to the impoverished North Korea and threatened its communist elite.

Other reasons why the US has chosen to cut a deal now is to extricate itself from the quagmire in Iraq, achieve leverage with the Democrats in charge of Congress, and show that “diplomacy” has worked.

Beijing’s Interests

Pyongyang has aroused Beijing’s ire by its nuclear tests. China, its patron ever since “blood-cemented alliance” forged during the Korean War (1950-53), “is believed to account for 70-90 per cent of North Korea’s fuel and one-third of its food imports”. Since then, regional and international geopolitics has undergone tectonic shifts. Beijing’s foreign policy objectives, post-September 11, 2001 are to ensure its “peaceful rise” and deepen its relationships with the US and its neighbours

– Japan, the Koreas, Russia, India and Taiwan. Aggravating tensions on the Korean peninsula is not in Beijing’s interests. This message was conveyed to Pyongyang, immediately after the missile tests, by none other than Chinese president Hu Jintao in a “rare public appeal”. Presently, Beijing’s concern is that its “coming-out party” – Summer Olympics 2008 – as an emerging superpower with economic, diplomatic, and military prowess is not rained upon.





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Economic and Political Weekly March 3, 2007

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