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Monday 19 Feb 2018 | 07:11 | SYDNEY
Monday 19 Feb 2018 | 07:11 | SYDNEY

Pyongyang's latest nuclear gesture



7 March 2012 15:55

Associate Professor Jingdong Yuan is Acting Director of the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney.

Last Wednesday, Pyongyang announced it would halt its uranium enrichment program and suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests. It has also agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to return to Yongbyon's nuclear facilities (pictured). In return, Washington agreed to ship 240,000 metric tons of food desperately needed by North Korea.

This latest development is the result of a series of bilateral meetings between the US and North Korea that started last year while Kim Jong-il was still alive. That Kim Jong-un, the new and untested leader, chose to continue the dialogue and not to resort to provocation to burnish his leadership credentials is intriguing. The agreement, according to the Obama Administration, is 'important, if limited', but could pave the way to Pyongyang's return to the Six-Party Talks.

The Six-Party Talks, which includes the US, the two Koreas, Japan, China and Russia, achieved major breakthroughs in the past in committing Pyongyang toward phased dismantlement of its nuclear program. It should continue to play a critical role in implementing any future nuclear disarmament agreement and in developing regional security arrangement and agreements on economic assistance to North Korea.

Pyongyang's latest nuclear gesture suggests that Kim Jong-un, the untested leader, may be looking for alternatives to address economic problems at home and isolation abroad. Yet it could also be a ploy to buy time. Indeed, it remains to be seen if the deal can last, given North Korea's record of acceding to agreements only to renege later.

Nor is it clear if the agreement covers North Korea's existing stockpile of nuclear weapons, believed to be around eight to ten pieces. Pyongyang may be prepared to return to the nuclear talks, but is it ready to give up its nuclear weapons? No one is sure, nor is anyone willing to turn away opportunities.

It is worthwhile re-visiting some of the lessons learned from past experiences in dealing with Pyongyang.

To begin with, dealing with North Korea's nuclear program is only part of the objective in achieving stable and long-lasting peace and security on the Korean Peninsula. To achieve that, the US and other regional powers must address Pyongyang's fundamental security concerns — acute isolation, an economy in shambles, and a regime that wants to survive.

Washington has repeatedly reassured Pyongyang that it has no 'hostile intent' toward North Korea. Yet from the DPRK's perspective, the continued US military presence, regular US-ROK joint exercises, and the failure to negotiate a peace treaty to replace the 1953 Armistice Agreement indicate otherwise. 

Indeed, whatever modest efforts the US and others made in the past at developing trust and addressing North Korean security concerns have either not been followed through or derailed due to ideological factors. Pyongyang's brinkmanship and provocation have also undermined such efforts.

Second, effective strategies require realistic targets, priorities, and good coordination. The bottom-line position should remain unchanged — the dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. But should North Korea return to the Six-Party Talks, the challenge will be how to work out a formula that addresses a number of issues in parallel — denuclearisation and verification, normalisation, a peace treaty, economic assistance — in ways that reinforce the multilateral process rather than blocking it.

Third, the allure of incentives and rewards is just as important as privation and threats. In this context, the 1994 Agreed Framework remains a viable model of addressing North Korea's nuclear issues. Critics often fault the agreement for its failure to prevent Pyongyang from pursuing its weapons program covertly. But failure to deliver on the part of the US and its partners deepened North Korea's suspicions, heightened its insecurity during a period of extreme fragility, and convinced it that nuclear weapons were the only guarantor for its survival.

The challenge is to persuade Pyongyang to return to the Six-Party Talks. A continued impasse could result in further erosion of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, including North Korean transfers of nuclear materials and technologies to state- or non-state actors simply to acquire desperately needed hard currency.

Meeting these uncertainties and challenges requires closer and better coordination among the key powers, especially the US, China, and the South Korea. But election politics, leadership transition, and the changing geo-strategic landscape in the region make such coordination at once an essential and daunting task for the months ahead.

Photo by Flickr user DigitalGlobe-Imagery.

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