Wednesday, February 7, 2007

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Everyone plays hard-to-get before the Six-Party Talks

The last post of the day by the Temporary Turkmenbashi of the Blogosphere completes his tour of totalitarian states by taking a glimpse at North Korea's tango with the United States over its nuclear weapons program.

As the six-party talks get underway, there's always the pre-meeting vacillations that resemble nothing so much as a small high school, when all parties fluctuate between flirting with agreement and denying that they were ever interested in an agreement.

For example, on Tuesday Glenn Kessler reported in the Washington Post that the North Koreans ratcheted up their demands at the last minute:

North Korea has set tough terms for a freeze of one of its nuclear facilities, demanding that the United States exceed commitments made under a Clinton-era deal that the Bush administration previously derided as inadequate.

North Korea's top nuclear negotiator, Kim Gye Gwan, and other officials outlined Pyongyang's position in meetings last week with two American nuclear experts, saying they would be presented when six-nation disarmament talks resume in Beijing on Thursday. In exchange for a freeze of the Yongbyon facility and a return of international inspectors, Pyongyang wants a substantial supply of heavy fuel oil, an end to a Treasury Department action that froze North Korean accounts at a Macau bank, an international commitment to build civilian nuclear reactors in North Korea and, most important, normalization of relations with Washington....

The freeze would only cover the increasingly decrepit Yongbyon facility, not other North Korean nuclear sites.

The North Korean officials also maintained that no freeze will take place until the U.S. side resolves the Treasury action against Banco Delta Asia, a Macau bank that allegedly served as a conduit for counterfeit U.S. currency. The case has resulted in the freezing of about $24 million in North Korean accounts and led other banks around the world to curtail dealings with North Korea. In recent talks with Treasury, North Korea identified a portion of the accounts that could be deemed legitimate in an effort to resolve the case.

"BDA is the tip of the iceberg," said Michael J. Green, a former White House official in charge of Asia policy and now at Georgetown University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said ending the case would unleash tens of millions of dollars in commercial transactions that had been curtailed since Treasury moved against the bank.

Green said the North Koreans were asking for "basically the Agreed Framework," which he said would be a "hard sell back in Washington." Bush for four years has called for a "complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement," so U.S. negotiators have sought to disable the Yongbyon facility in such a way that it could not be quickly restarted.

Oddly enough, the Financial Times' Demetri Sevastopulo reports that the United States is acting all flirty this time:
The US would be prepared to start normalising relations with North Korea before it completes nuclear disarmament if that would persuade Pyongyang to move forward on a previous agreement to denuclearise the Korean peninsula.

A senior Bush administration official told the Financial Times that Washington would consider starting the process of removing Pyong­yang from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and easing restrictions on US companies dealing with the state if North Korea moved forward on its previous commitment to dismantle its nuclear programmes.

Washington hopes to make progress on implementing a stalemated 2005 deal when US officials sit down with their North Korean counterparts at six party talks in Beijing on Thursday. Under that deal, which was agreed among the US, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, Pyongyang pledged to abandon its nuclear weapons programmes and rejoin the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in return for energy assistance and security guarantees....

The senior official said the combination of financial pressures on the regime, a poor harvest in 2006, and increased pressure from the Chinese, who are angry about the North Korean nuclear test last October, have forced Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, to rethink his strategy.

In particular, current and former officials say, Pyongyang may be motivated to reach a compromise to alleviate financial pressures caused partly by the US move to freeze North Korean assets at Banco Delta Asia in Macao. The administration believes North Korea may act to prevent US action against other banks – the Bush administration has identified at least a dozen – where it could freeze North Korean funds.

“That is what the North Koreans are after here,” said Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mr Green was senior Asia director at the White House national security council until December 2005.

“They have a larger clotting of financial flows because bankers around the world are afraid to deal with them. And they would like to unfreeze all of that through the demonstration of an agreement on Banco Delta Asia [under which the US would unfreeze some assets]”.

To urge Mr Kim toward a deal, the US has signalled it is prepared to be more flexible. Under the 2005 agreement, Washington offered to provide energy assistance, security guarantees, and move towards normalising relations only after Pyongyang had disabled all its nuclear activities.

This time, the US is preparing to accept a partial disablement, which would then trigger the process towards normalising relations. A deal agreed with the other six-party members would also include food assistance, which Pyongyang badly needs after the poor 2006 harvest....

[T]he North Koreans are also resurrecting demands for a light water reactor. But the senior administration official said Pyongyang was probably demanding the reactor as a negotiating tactic and would settle for a deal without one. But he cautioned that any demand for the reactor would be a “non-starter”.

Proponents of the new proposal within the Bush administration argue that China is increasing willing to use its muscle with Pyongyang in a fashion that could produce a deal. Although they caution that the key will be to make sure China and South Korea keep the pressure on North Korea after any initial agreement to make sure Pyongyang does not back track.

The FT goes on to observe that any deal will be a tough domestic sell. This is a major point in this Christian Science Monitor report by Howard LaFranchi as well:
Those kinds of small steps may be about all we can expect out of the Bush administration," says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. "They may just be looking to settle the situation down so they can focus their last two years on Iraq, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Mr. Albright, who met recently with North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, says the North's ultimate goal is a move toward "meaningful relations" with the US. The North also understands it will have to take clear steps before that could happen, he says, but they also remain skeptical of US intent.

"They want a process," he says, but they are also reluctant to proceed to a freeze on plutonium production that they fear might open them up to bolder US moves against them. "They make it clear they would respond to any aggressive moves," Albright says.

One stumbling block is a lack of clarity from the Bush administration on North Korea, he adds. Does the US accept the regime of Kim Jong Il or not? Might it still try to use military force to end its military nuclear capabilities or not? Is the furnishing of civilian nuclear facilities on the table for the US or not?

"The US is suffering from a lack of clarity on this issue," Albright says, "and it's not at all clear it can be resolved in the next two years."

Clearly, one other common denominator is that all the same experts get quoted.


UPDATE: Reports of an actual agreement are denied by the United States.

posted by Dan on 02.07.07 at 08:47 PM


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