Nuclear puzzle

Published : Aug 01, 2008 00:00 IST

Whatever the details of North Koreasnuclear declaration, its verification offer may herald a new phase in the six-party process.

in Singapore

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), as North Korea is officially acknowledged by even its adversaries such as the United States, chose the American Independence Day, July 4, to make an important statement. Earlier, on June 26, the DPRK had presented its nuclear declaration to China, the proactive chair of the six-party talks on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. And, on the following day, the 25-metre cooling tower at the Yongbyon complex, the suspected nerve centre of North Koreas plutonium-based nuclear weapons programme, was imploded in a blast for peace.

Even as that choreographed event attracted worldwide attention, the DPRKs dialogue partners wanted to wait before making the next move, individually or collectively. They wanted to verify the accuracy of the nuclear declaration; U.S. President George W. Bush said so after announcing moves to declassify the DPRK as a terror-sponsoring state and as an enemy under American trade laws. Bushs action was directly designed to improve ties with Pyongyang for having chosen to declare its nuclear facilities and activities. However, both the U.S. and the other dialogue partners remained keen to reassess the DPRKs political will in the context of this dramatic demolition of the cooling tower, an essential link in the North Korean nuclear chain. In this sense, the DPRK did not disappoint them by conveying its post-declaration political intent, regardless of whether that would be acceptable to all of them.

The July 4 statement squarely placed the political onus for any further progress towards denuclearisation on the shoulders of the DPRKs five dialogue partners the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. Pyongyang pointed out that its performance in implementing various step-by-step agreements, already entered into under the ongoing six-party process, had outpaced the record of the other five.

The agreed political norm was that action by Pyongyang towards its denuclearisation would be matched by commensurate action by the other five in delivering it economic aid and conventional energy. However, hardly 40 per cent of these aid commitments had been fulfilled in response to the DPRKs disabling of its nuclear facilities to the tune of 80 per cent, the statement outlined. So, any further discussions on the overall denuclearisation issues would now be possible only when all participating countries precisely fulfil their duties already specified.

The current phase of the six-party process is focussed on disablement of the DPRKs known nuclear facilities that were shut down in the previous stage, setting off the progressive implementation of denuclearisation over time. For this disablement to be followed by dismantlement, the five parties have insisted on obtaining a verifiable nuclear declaration from Pyongyang. With this declaration now delivered, behind the original schedule by no more than six months, the DPRK is clearly seeking the moral high ground.

Unsurprisingly, Pyongyang is now willing to subject is nuclear declaration to international verification. This is an important offer because the U.S., Japan and South Korea suspect that the DPRK is concealing its suspected uranium-enrichment programme, which was perhaps put on stream with help from Pakistan.

Whatever the details of the nuclear declaration, Pyongyangs offer of verification may herald the beginning of a brave new phase in the six-party process if only because the tough issues in denuclearisation cannot be put off much longer. The possible scenarios, therefore, are the stuff of some serious thinking in Asia-Pacific diplomatic circles.

Of fundamental importance to the definition of Korean peninsula denuclearisation is the issue of persuading or pressuring the DPRK to give up all its stockpiles of fissile material and also nuclear weapons. The collateral questions are those of disabling and dismantling all of Pyongyangs nuclear facilities that could be used for either military or civilian benefits.

The posers concerning the stated and suspected stockpiles of fissile material would subsume the alleged uranium-enrichment route besides the acknowledged plutonium-based reprocessing route. With the uranium-related issues remaining speculative as of the first week of July, U.S. experts and officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), already at Yongbyon, had their work cut out for them in the plutonium domain.

The Yongbyon complex, inclusive of a 5 MW Soviet-era nuclear reactor and a related plant for reprocessing the spent plutonium fuel, was thrown open to these experts several weeks, if not months, before the July 4 statement. However, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted that access to the reactor core and the waste dump was also necessary to guard against any DPRK effort at cheating.

On the plutonium side of the ledger itself, the accounting of Pyongyangs existing atomic arsenal is a daunting political and technological task. At the moment, the U.S. and its scientific ally, Japan, have not raised an alarm over suspicions, if any, that the DPRK could have produced, if not also tested, a nuclear device derived from enriched uranium.

With the current public focus on Pyongyangs atomic arsenal being limited to the plutonium domain, any resistance by the DPRK to disarm itself can be met by allowing it to retain a degenerating stockpile of these nuclear weapons. This possibility is based on the scientific reasoning that a small atomic arsenal such as the one that the DPRK is suspected to have will have a limited shelf-life of usability in one significant scenario.

This relates to the necessity that all of the DPRKs existing nuclear facilities, including its suspected assets in the uranium-enrichment domain, should be shut down sequentially, disabled and dismantled irreversibly. If this three-stage process is completed successfully, the DPRK will then be unable to produce more nuclear weapons or modernise the older ones for strike purposes. So runs the relevant scientific theory. However, this is a tall order indeed, especially if Pyongyang were to drag its political feet or even refuse to cooperate at some future stage for whatever reason.

So, Condoleezza Rice corrected course, cognisant of Japans quick-fire insistence that the elimination of the DPRKs nuclear arsenal should not be forgotten as the goal in the dazzling publicity over the cooling tower demolition. Having first failed to mention this critical goal, while applauding the blasting of the cooling tower, she quickly insisted that the final objective was the DPRKs abandonment of all [nuclear] programmes, weapons, and materials. These and other technological niceties cannot conceal the political dynamics of the strategic kind at work. Why has the DPRK agreed to a process of denuclearising the Korean peninsula? There are two reasons: a long-term strategic objective and a short-term political compulsion.

To many, the DPRKs short-term political compulsion is one of obtaining some economic goodies, now that a nuclear deterrence, with some credible strike capabilities, has been acquired. A key point in this reasoning is that DPRKs leader, Kim Jong-il, is determined to preserve his military-first state by wooing its citizens through economic development, for which he could now bargain with China and the West.

An equally important short-term political calculation on the part of the DPRK has to do with China. Rising at space-age velocity as an economic superpower with a potentially high political profile, China has, in recent years, made common cause with the U.S. over global issues of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

There are many reasons for what Western experts have come to see as Chinas strategic choice of becoming a superpower within the framework of the existing West-oriented world order. It is anybodys guess whether this objective reality will change and, if so, when.

China, for its part, has affirmed its resolve to eschew hegemony even as a superpower in the future. Of greater relevance to the DPRK, though, is that in these circumstances it cannot hope to stay its nuclear armament course and also retain a special relationship with China.

While these nuances should explain Pyongyangs short-term political compulsion, a greater subtleness is evident behind Kims long-term strategic objective. He is keen to emerge from Chinas vast geopolitical shadow and negotiate with the U.S. as its peer, or almost as its peer. This may, on the surface, be mistaken for diplomacy of delusion.

What cannot be ignored, though, is the DPRKs sense of self-identity as a state that has been withstanding a siege by the U.S. since the end of the Korean War in the 1950s. Kim, while being aware of Chinas contributions towards the DPRKs survival all these years, has at the same time seen a new opportunity to seize some strategic space in the evolving East Asian situation. The U.S.-led West has never granted to him what Israel has been given all along the so-called Samsons Option of nuclear deterrence. Yet, Kim has accomplished just that.

So, it stands to reason, from Kims perspective, that he put this to use and seek a decisive say over the conception and creation of a security architecture in his neighbourhood in East Asia. This long-term strategic objective should help explain the DPRKs constant efforts at setting terms for its nuclear disarmament.

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