Can North Korea Come in From Cold?

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Can North Korea Come in From Cold?

Will North Korea ever abandon its nuclear program? And who is it helping acquire weapons? The Diplomat speaks with leading North Korea analyst Mark Fitzpatrick.

According to a report last month in Die Welt, Syria built a secret missile assembly line with the help of North Korea and Iran. How likely is it that North Korea has indeed been involved in such work?

It’s no secret that North Korea has been providing missile technology to Syria, to Iran and to other countries, typically in the form of local assembly, although several of Pyongyang’s former missile customers have stopped their business. The issue of nuclear co-operation is quite a bit less clear.

With regard to Syria, It’s very clear that North Korea provided the basis for Syria’s plutonium production reactor at Al Kibar, which Israel bombed in September 2007. Whether there was more nuclear technology in the pipeline  is a matter of considerable conjecture. I expect that other nuclear facilities were being planned, but so far nothing more has come to light.

The reports of a three-way North Korea-Iran-Syria missile or nuclear co-operation are unconfirmed. There may well be something there, but until there’s greater confirmation, I hesitate to draw conclusions.

What about North Korean co-operation with other countries?

There’s a great deal of speculation that North Korea has offered nuclear assistance to Burma. The jury is still out on that one. It does now appear that Burma has been exploring various nuclear technologies that are weapons related. But it hasn’t been a well-structured program, and they haven’t gotten very far.

It’s less clear whether Burma received any nuclear co-operation from North Korea. I wouldn’t be greatly surprised if indeed there was such co-operation. After all, North Korea provided Syria with a plutonium producing reactor and provided the AQ Khan network with uranium hexafluoride that ended up in Libya. So I’m sure that if Burma approached North Korea, then North Korea would be willing to provide such co-operation. But it hasn’t been confirmed by unbiased sources.

There certainly is a strong military connection between the two countries, which apparently has extended to the missile field. Now that Burma appears to be coming in from the cold, and restoring aspects of democracy and improving relations with its neighbors and the United States, it will be very interesting to see whether they continue with this exploration of nuclear weapons related technologies, or whether they come clean about any talks they may have had with North Korea on the matter.

Seoul’s top official in charge of relations with Pyongyang has said that Kim Jong-il faces significant challenges with the expected transfer of power to his son, Kim Jong-un. What could the implications of a “messy” transfer be for North Korea’s nuclear program?

It could indeed get messy, depending on when Kim Jong-un has to take over the reins. That is to say, how much longer is his father going to be running the show? If he departs this world in the near to medium term, his son may not yet have consolidated enough of a power base on his own to maintain control. In such circumstances, it’s possible that there could be a struggle for power. And in a struggle for power, control of North Korea’s nuclear assets could represent a significant commodity.

One could also imagine a scenario in which if things really broke down in North Korea, and different warlord-like figures took over different parts of the country, or different parts of the establishment, they could be competing for control of the nuclear assets. Such a warlord could seek to sell part of North Korea’s nuclear paraphernalia for the money it would bring on the black market. There are probably terrorist groups that would be inclined to pay top price for fissile material, especially if North Korea has produced highly enriched uranium, which is easier than plutonium to fashion into a crude weapon. Even a weapons sale is possible. So there is a real reason to be concerned over what would happen if there was a breakdown in authority. This isn’t to predict that there will be such a breakdown, but it’s a possibility. I’m sure Washington and Seoul are thinking a lot about this.

U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman said last month that North Korea must stop its uranium enrichment program and implement its previous denuclearization pledges before any resumption of the stalled six-party nuclear talks can take place. Do you see any sign that North Korea might show some flexibility to allow the talks to resume?

If you listen to the mood music from well-versed negotiators like Kim Gae-won, you might get a sense that they are looking for a way to get back to the table. Indeed, North Korea has real reasons to want to show a kinder face to the world. They are in need of food assistance, and so showing some signs of flexibility is to their advantage. But in terms of any actual inclination to make the kind of concessions that the United States and South Korea have demanded as the basis for resuming talks, I don’t see any sign of North Korean willingness to make such concessions.

And it’s not as if they are being asked immediately to turn over all their plutonium-based weapons. They are being asked to return to the status quo before their nuclear testing in 2006: a return to the denuclearization pledges of September 2005 and to a point when they didn’t have a declared uranium enrichment facility. Since then they have tested and set up a shiny new enrichment plant with advanced centrifuges, so there’s reason to ask them to make amends before negotiations begin. But I don’t see that happening.

Is there anything the U.S. or South Korea can reasonably do to salvage the Six-Party Talks, or is the onus on North Korea?

One has to be realistic about what is achievable. Of course there are things the United States and its partners can do to induce North Korea to return to the negotiating table. But none of them really have any interest in simply resuming talks for the sake of talks. They want some real progress.

There is some secondary objective that might be achievable, such as a basis for crisis management so that attacks of the kind North Korea perpetrated last year don’t reoccur or don’t spiral out of control. Having some communications channels open so that North Korea wouldn’t feel it has to engage in provocations to get people’s attention would be a worthy objective in and of itself.

It would be good if North Korea were to take other steps in the nuclear missile field, of agreeing to a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing. That might be achievable, because a missile testing moratorium is something that North Korea has agreed to in the past, and it is a political pledge that doesn’t require intrusive verification.  But it doesn’t look like a moratorium is at the top of the wish list for Washington. They look like they want real progress in rolling back the nuclear program, starting with the uranium enrichment program that North Korea surprised everyone with last November.

There has been much discussion recently about how bad the situation is in North Korea for average North Koreans hit by food shortages. Is there any indication a deterioration of the situation will have any impact on the regime’s decision making?

I don’t see much basis for thinking the North Korean leadership responds to domestic economic crises by adjusting its foreign policy. Times of much greater hardship in North Korea – in particular the famine in the mid-1990s that killed up to 2 million of its citizens – didn’t exactly produce a kinder, gentler face for North Korea. The Agreed Framework happened to be concluded at the time, but that was because the United States put a lot on the table for North Korea. North Korea’s refusal to allow an IAEA “special inspection” nearly led to war that was avoided only through US creative diplomacy,

Today, I don’t think the situation is as dire as it was during the famine years. There’s no doubt that many pockets of North Korean citizenry are getting fewer calories than they require. But I also have no doubt that North Korea has food stored up for the military that it could use if it wanted to address the people’s hunger. I also have no doubt that North Korean officials are storing food up for the celebrations of next year’s centennial marking the birth of founding father Kim Il-sung. If the hunger of the people was a driving factor, they wouldn’t be putting all their eggs in the celebration basket.

Is there any glimmer of hope at all that the situation can be resolved satisfactorily, at least from the point of view of the U.S. and other Six-Party members?

From the American, Japanese and South Korean point of view, successful resolution would mean an end to the North Korean nuclear weapons program. But I don’t see any prospect of that happening under the current regime. I used to think that North Korea might be willing to barter away its nuclear weapons program for economic assistance and a better relationship with the United States, but that hope hasn’t been proven out.

I don’t see any sign of North Korean willingness to give up its nuclear weapons. I think it has reached the conclusion that a nuclear arsenal is necessary for the preservation of the regime. They just don’t trust the outside world to leave them in peace, so they really believe nuclear weapons are necessary for their survival. In addition to their perceived value as a deterrent, North Korea’s nuclear program and missiles are just about the only thing the leadership has going for it that it can display to its people an achievement. That and the fact that they have survived this long despite all the contradictions in their system.

Mark Fitzpatrick is director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Previously, he  served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Non-proliferation (acting).