Sunday, April 13, 2003

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North Korea update

The Bush administration strategy on North Korea -- which bears some resemblance to what I had suggested in this space in January -- is now reaping potentially significant dividends, according to today's New York Times:

In a policy shift, North Korea said today that it would negotiate its nuclear program without sticking "to any particular dialogue format" if the United States changed its stance on the issue.

The new policy signals an end to a six-month insistence on two-way talks with the United States, and comes days after the fall of Iraq's government, a part, along with Iran and North Korea, of what President Bush has called an 'axis of evil.'....

In Washington, a senior official who deals extensively with North Korean issues said today that while the statement was still being evaluated, it appeared that pressure exerted by China had compelled the North Koreans to change their position. 'This means some kind of discussion can go forward but in the past the North Koreans have been known to drop out of talks if they don't like how they are going,' the official said.

As recently as Friday, American officials said there was still activity at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, although no evidence that North Korea had yet begun converting its 8,000 nuclear fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium.

North Korea's shift may be a result of diplomatic pressure from Russia and China. On Wednesday, both nations, historic allies of North Korea, blocked the adoption in the United Nations Security Council of any statement critical of North Korea's nuclear program. It is possible that with the United Nations action out of the way, the North Koreans saw their moment to move.

On Friday, a top Russian official said Russia would reconsider its longstanding policy of opposing sanctions against North Korea if it developed nuclear arms. (emphasis added)

It's not just China and Russia -- this week, ASEAN will probably send the same message.

What has been the effect of Operation Iraqi Freedom on North Korea? It would be safe to say that the North Koreans are rattled, in a potentially good way. This Friday Washington Post interview with the South Korean President opens with the following grafs:

South Korea's new president, Roh Moo Hyun, said today he believes North Korea is 'petrified' by the American success in overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but he disputed the contention of some U.S. officials that North Korea already has a nuclear weapon.

The former human rights lawyer said in an interview that despite concerns in Washington that he wants to chart a course of independence during a nuclear weapons crisis with North Korea, 'there will be no change in the fact that the United States will remain our closest and most important ally.

This New York Times story buttresses this statement:

American and South Korean officials saw the prospects for negotiations as resting in large measure on how both the United States and North Korea interpreted the lessons of the war in Iraq.

The North Korean party newspaper Rodong Sinmun summarized the fears of North Korean leaders, saying the United States was 'keen to ignite another Korean War after concluding the Iraqi war.'

A senior South Korean official, asking that his name not be used, said North Korean intentions were likely to become clear 'after North Korea has had time to assess the significance of events in Iraq.' The official predicted, however, that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, 'will be more on the rational than on the irrational side.'

posted by Dan on 04.13.03 at 10:17 AM