Does N. Korea Really Want to Make a Deal?
[Interview] Peter Beck, the North East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group
Peter Beck ?2005 Cheong W.S.
Peter Beck is the North East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group in Seoul. His Korean adventure started in 1987 when he came to South Korean to study the ongoing democratization movement. With the crisis in North Korea, his interest shifted more towards the North Korean issue.
This interview was conducted at the Seoul office of PeaceKorea.org, Oct. 6.
What are your thoughts on the outcome of the six party talks of last September?
I was quite surprised that they achieved a breakthrough because it looked as if they were closer to a breakdown. However the media overreacted to the breakthrough. The Joint Statement is not a real agreement; it is very vague and there are no precise details on the deal. The better way is to regard the outcome of the six party talks of last September as a minor breakthrough.
I remain rather pessimistic actually. My fundamental question is: Does North Korea really want to make a deal? Are they serious on giving up weapons? I don’t know the answer to those questions. This round of six party talks didn’t help to answer that question. North Korea’s actions were a little bit surprising. If their real goal is energy then it is not the issue of what type of energy, but where it is built. They would want to have control over their energy sources. If I were Kim Jong Il, then I would not want to rely on power from South Korea. So why do they seem to ignore the South Korean proposal?
It will be very difficult in the future, but it is a small step forward. Starting is half the effort. I was also very impressed with the U.S. delegation being more flexible.
What made the U.S. delegation more flexible?
It is a combination of factors. There was the change in the foreign policy team where we now have Condoleezza Rice and Christopher Hill. There is also a new dynamic in the foreign policy towards Asia. Hill is just separated from Bush by Rice, who has tremendous trust from George Bush. Christopher Hill is extremely capable and respected. He is a true diplomat who has the trust and the confidence of Rice, so he has the space to be a little more flexible. In addition to this, recent difficulties such as the mismanagement of Iraq and the hurricanes, Katrina and Rita, weakened Bush’s negotiation position. The U.S. has also no plan if the negotiations with North Korea fail since sanctions will not be supported by China and South Korea. Fortunately they have a capable negotiator.
In meetings with the U.S. team my advice was to stop the competition in name-calling and start a competition in reasonability. So both in Washington and Pyongyang there is a current dynamic that neither wants a breakdown but they are not handling a breakthrough at this moment. Hill should go to Pyongyang to hold the momentum. Why wait two months if they could talk now. The so-called “hawks” in Washington cannot stop Hill from going to Pyongyang. They have no alternative and Hill has through Rice the trust of Bush.
Thus the reason why the United States were more flexible during the 6 party talks was mainly because of personnel and situation changes. Is this sustainable or temporary?
It is sustainable because of the trust Bush has in Rice, like I said before. But North Korea shouldn’t wait too long because then Hill’s position in the U.S. can get weaker. North Korea has now the best opportunity in the next years. The U.S. seems to be incapable of electing good leadership. Democrats are weaker and even with the Democrats in power we would see the same policy on North Korea. Look at the Human Rights Act: it was unanimously adopted. But then again we can remember the expression characterizing Kim Jong Il his behavior: “He never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
The Light Water Reactor
Did the U.S. show clear incentives to North Korea?
Yes they did. The North got security assurance, normalization talks, energy assistance and peace talks: anything that North Korea wants. But they haven’t agreed on the more specific elements of the deal, like the Light Water Reactors.
What about the Russian model for the Light Water Reactor?
This would not be a useful proposal at this point because U.S. doesn’t want to give any nuclear power before North Korea gives up their nuclear program and show compliance to the IAEA commitments. It would be a premature proposal and then again: who would trust Russia? Maybe three to four years after North Korea complies with IAEA. The Light Water Reactor discussion should only start after North Korea finished the dismantlement of their nuclear program
North Korea made clear however they would want a simultaneous sequence of events, because, according to them, the U.S. also violated the 1994 Agreement.
Agreement on sequence will come later. But in regard to the violations of agreements the North lost its right to nuclear power by violating the NPT. You can look at the NPT like a driving license. If you drive drunk, you loose your license. There is no question the U.S. did not hold up the 1994 Agreement either but there are different types of violations. They only delayed oil supplies and committed minor violations. North Korea’s offense was much more serious. So North Korea has temporarily lost its right.
The light water reactor is a non-starter for the next round. It is a signal from North Korea that they are not serious about negotiations. It is the key obstacle at the moment. Sequencing and inspections will be a problem and North Korea still hasn’t admitted to having a uranium program.
There are three big steps that have to be taken from now. Step one is to agree on the elements of the agreement. North Korea will have to make a declaration on its programs. Like Hill said: “We will not have an Easter egg hunt.” That will create some vulnerability for North Korea and gives the U.S. a target to hit. So just step one is a huge concession for North Korea. On the other hand, North Korea can hit Seoul back at any time, so they don’t have to be afraid of any security threat, really.
Step two will be an agreement on the sequence of actions and the last step will entail inspections and verifications. Taking these three steps will be a long and difficult process.
The ultimate goal of the United States seems to be regime change. If this is so, how is it compatible with ultimate North Korean goals?
At the end of the 1980s we saw signs of changes in North Korea, something was happening. Members of the Bush team thought they just had to wait a little longer until North Korea would collapse, but I am skeptical. The United States should start from the assumption that Kim Jong Il is going to be in power longer than Bush will be in the United States.
The United States ultimately does want a regime change, but certain pragmatism has been introduced. North Korea knows very well the United Sates wants regime change. There is always a struggle between ideology and pragmatism. Now the degree of pragmatism has set in the Bush administration and they have to balance the ideological goal with the following fact: if Bush leaves office he cannot leave behind a failing situation. Does Bush want four more years of failure? They will never get Iraq right, but they have still a chance with North Korea, so they should try.
The more reasonable and pragmatic the United States is, the higher the pressure on North Korea. But of course the downside for the United States is then that they will have to live with the fact that maybe in the near future there will be a light water reactor in North Korea. But the cost for not making a deal with North Korea is very high. It would make of North Korea a Wal-Mart for nuclear power. China and South Korea play also a role in putting pressure on both sides. The South Korean proposal did not single handedly twist the Joint Statement, maybe Beijing has been a more important factor. It is very hard to set out what was more important. All in all, the last Joint Statement was the combination of pressures and the situations of the Bush administration.
Test North Korea’s Intentions
In the meantime what should the first step be before the next round starts?
Christopher Hill should go to Pyongyang to show U.S. flexibility and to test North Korea’s real intentions.
The framework of the six party talks still works. Four party talks were tried in the past and failed. The future will tell if for North Korea, these six party talks are a vanity game, a trophy project or if North Korea will not get a reactor but other energy sources instead. If North Korea plays charades for another 10 years they must not be serious about getting energy. As said before, it is not what kind of energy but where it comes from. If North Korea is serious about their energy, they are barking up the wrong tree.
Some people say Kim Jong Il pushes for the reactors as a demonstration of the juche-ideology.
Juche can explain everything and nothing. It is not persuasive. The juche ideology is malleable and not at all pragmatic. It may be just an unwillingness to give up their nuclear program. They will never trust the United States, but they are not ready for confrontation either. Indications show they may not be ready to make a deal yet at this point.
What should the role of South Korea be in the next six party talks?
First they would have to agree on the elements of the Joint Statement. Will it involve civic nuclear power? Will it involve KEDO? South Korea has to get a better sense of North Korea and of what North Korea wants.
South Korea has played a very positive role in creating momentum and pushing the U.S. to be more reasonable. However, I think North Korea will try to exploit as much as possible differences between South Korea and the U.S. In the future, will South Korea accept that North Korea has a say in their business? North Korea’s behavior also puts the South in front of a dilemma. The North tries to kick out the World Food Program (WFP) and other western NGO’s when it gets unconditional aid from the South. In addition to this I am not convinced that North Korea is sincerely reaching out to South Korea. Reconciliation is inherently a threat to the North Korean regime. The more contact between each other’s citizens, the bigger the threat to the regime.
All in all, I want reconciliation for North and South Korea, but I just don’t trust Kim Jong Il.