On Friday, officials in Seoul confirmed reports that North Korea had approved the visit of a U.S. delegation and would allow it to inspect the Yongbyon nuclear facility — the first foreign access to the country’s atomic sites since U.N. nuclear inspectors were expelled more than a year ago.
Some engagement with the secretive North Korean regime is thought by most experts to be better than no contact. But analysts were quick to say that by welcoming the delegation, Pyongyang likely was not suggesting a reversal in its pursuit of nuclear weapons and, in fact, could be sending the opposite message.
The imminent delegation visit, first reported by USA Today, is slated for Jan. 6-10 and includes former State Department official Jack Pritchard who has favored engagement with the hermetic communist nation. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is sending Republican staff member Keith Luse and a Democratic colleague, Frank Jannuzi, both East Asia experts. It also includes Sig Hecker, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1985 to 1997, and China specialist John Lewis of Stanford University.
“At this stage, it’s hard to know if it’s good news or bad news,” said Eric Heginbotham, a senior fellow and Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “Are [the North Koreans] trying to prove that they are reprocessing [nuclear fuel] or that they are not reprocessing?”
As usual, the latest move by Pyongyang raises more questions than it answers. Why would North Korea allow an inspection now? The regime of President Kim Jong Il has been insisting that it is pursuing a nuclear weapons program for most of a year and will continue unless the United States offers an ironclad assurance of non-aggression. The administration has refused any such assurance without “full and verifiable” elimination of nuclear programs.
How much will the delegation be allowed to see at Yongbyon, and will it be enough to clarify North Korea’s success or abandonment of nuclear fuel reprocessing or leave those questions unanswered? Based on the information available so far, the delegation does not have the technical manpower to do a careful analysis of the facility.
The delegation’s plans raise questions on this side of the Pacific, as well. Why did the Bush administration not block this team’s visit after barring a congressional delegation led by Sen. Curt Weldon, R-Pa. — also expected to visit Yongbyon — just two months earlier? Is there a new White House strategy afoot, sparked either by changes in Libya or related to 2004 election strategy?
Concerns about a nuclear North Korea have been on the rise for the past several years, and particularly since October 2002, when a North Korean official conceded to a visiting U.S. official that the country had a secret uranium enrichment program, which the United States said was a violation of a 1994 agreement. Washington then cut off fuel aid to North Korea under the same agreement.
North Korea, in turn, expelled the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and has made a series of claims about its nuclear weapons development. Among other moves, it reopened the Yongbyon facility, which had been mothballed for years, and said it had reprocessed all 8,000 spent nuclear plant fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium.
One very plausible theory, say North Korea watchers, is that Pyongyang is trying to prove progress in producing nuclear weapons program, to strengthen its hand in six-party talks — which are expected to restart early in the year despite delays.
A first round of the talks — which, at the insistence of the Bush administration, also include Japan, Russia, China and South Korea — took place in August but ended inconclusively, and planning for new rounds has stalled. North Korea has indicated that it would take part in another round but would prefer to cut a deal directly with the United States.
The United States fought alongside South Koreans in the 1950-53 war. Fighting halted, but technically the two Koreas are still at war; massive troop deployments face off across the 38th parallel, and 37,000 U.S. troops are stationed in the South to bolster its defenses.
By some estimates, North Korea has the capacity to produce up to six nuclear weapons. Even that is uncertain, and it is unclear which of its additional claims are mere bluff. Revealing some of its hand may strengthen its bargaining power.
North Korea “may be playing one of their usual games where they show a little of their nuclear program — but nothing really vital — and hope to get something in return ... which could be American concessions,” said Robert Dujarric, a senior fellow of national security studies at the Hudson Institute’s Washington office.
“Their message may be that, politically, they are willing to cut a deal and, by the way, without a deal we’re moving toward nuclear weapons,” Heginbotham said.
But there may be political forces at play that have indeed changed the equation. For one thing, recent concessions by North Korea — such as its agreeing to six-party discussions — have come as the result of pressure from neighboring China, and approval of this visit may bear Beijing’s imprimatur, as well.
Despite playing communist big brother to Pyongyang in the early days of its revolution, Beijing has long since become more pragmatic on most fronts — and developed extremely important economic relationships (as well as political ties) with capitalist South Korea and the United States.
Beijing may have once again used its traditional ties to pressure Pyongyang to curry favor with the United States in hope of countering a rising tide of trade protectionism aimed in particular at Chinese products.
For years, China continued its material and ideological support of North Korea in part because it feared that if the North fell or became irrelevant under a unified Korean peninsula, it would put a hostile South Korea and its U.S. allies right on China’s borders.
These days, said Dujarric, Beijing’s waning fears of South Korea and the importance of its economic ties with the United States may be trumping Beijing’s old alliance.
“Beijing may have figured out that now is a time when they need to earn credits in the U.S.,” he said. ”They may need to tell Congress, ‘We helped you on this,’” hoping to ease rising trade tensions and U.S. demands that China revalue its currency.
The U.S. trade deficit with China hit a record in October, at $13.57 billion — the largest monthly imbalance ever recorded with any country — and a big chunk of the total deficit recorded.
The White House on Friday issued a cool response to the planned delegation. White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said that the six-nation effort to address the issue was the appropriate forum for such an undertaking.
And the State Department, asked about the plans of the two groups to visit Pyongyang, said they were not acting on behalf of the administration. “Any efforts that complicate prospects or undertakings to reconvene six-party talks and to achieve forward movement in dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program aren’t helpful,” a spokesman said.
Asked whether the administration opposed the visit, he said, “We neither facilitate nor oppose.”
But the White House position has been nearly as mysterious as Pyongyang’s. The Bush administration has been roundly criticized by experts for failing to produce a coherent strategy — apparently caught in a tug-of-war between hard-line and moderate forces.
A first, bipartisan Weldon delegation that visited North Korea in May returned home with a plan to defuse the nuclear crisis — but that plan would have required the White House to offer North Korea a written security guarantee. The White House, or at least its hard-line component, was apparently miffed by the visit and the scheme and was reportedly behind its opposition to a subsequent trip led by Weldon slated for December.
Some experts suggest that the latest diplomatic progress in Libya and Iran, and the defeat of Saddam Hussein, if not all his followers, could allow the president to take a more moderate position on North Korea, while doing so from a position of strength.
In any case, keeping some contact with the communist regime — albeit low-level or unofficial — may prevent North Korea from issuing more alarming rhetoric or, worse still, from conducting a nuclear test in the run-up to the 2004 vote. In that way, North Korea would remain a complicated muddle on the sidelines, rather than a high-profile election issue that could hurt the president’s standing.