Features

Window of lost opportunity

North Korea | Pyongyang just can't leave a good thing alone

Issue: "Rita: Strike 2," Oct. 1, 2005

For a brief window-less than 24 hours, to be exact-it looked like a diplomatic breakthrough. After two years, four rounds of talks, and six parties at the table, North Korea signed a statement Sept. 19 agreeing to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in return for aid and security guarantees.

But the feted news soon turned embarrassing for the United States and fellow negotiators China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan. The next day North Korea demanded it receive light-water nuclear reactors-supposedly for energy needs-before it dismantled its weapons program. "The U.S. should not even dream" of North Korean nuclear dismantlement, an official government statement read, until the nation had received the reactors as "a physical guarantee for confidence-building."

For many North Korea watchers, this was a familiar tactic from the Stalinist state: backpedaling to eke out more concessions. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brushed it off. "We will stick to the text of the Beijing statement, and I believe we can make progress if everybody sticks to what was actually agreed to," she said.

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Even so, some analysts worry the United States has already conceded too much ahead of the next round of talks scheduled for early November. Chuck Downs, a former Pentagon official and author of Over the Line: North Korea's Negotiating Strategy, said the United States has weakened its leverage in this round. The Kim Jong Il regime got what it wanted: a U.S. assurance that Washington will not pursue or consider military action against it.

"This is really the only way you get the North Koreans to be cooperative," Mr. Downs said. "We tried to take away our own ability to threaten them. They wanted us to tie our own legs together before we proceeded with these negotiations."

The Beijing joint statement also looks like the first step toward a similar agreement to the failed 1994 framework, under which North Korea won aid and reactors for "freezing" its nuclear weapons activities. In reality, the nation pursued a clandestine uranium enrichment program uncovered by the Bush administration in 2002. Even holding out the prospect for light-water reactors is a softer stance: "That's how the North Koreans see it," Mr. Downs said. "That was put in at the request of North Korea."

As full focus was on the diplomatic theater, however, equally significant humanitarian news emerged. The World Food Program (WFP) announced Sept. 16 that North Korea has asked it to stop emergency food aid shipments by the end of the year. For a country that has been in starvation mode for a decade, the impact could be deep and devastating.

WFP currently feeds about 6.5 million North Koreans a year, almost a third of the population, beginning 10 years ago when the state-induced famine was at its worst. North Korea wants to convert food aid into development aid, which already constitutes three-quarters of the work WFP does, including food-for-work programs and managing food reprocessing factories.

"The government has said they'll take care of it," said WFP Country Director Richard Ragan, who spoke to WORLD from Pyongyang. "Until such [time] that doesn't happen, I have to believe that they will."

The West is reluctant to supply more development aid to North Korea, however, without meaningful reforms. "If they don't, we'll have to begin closing the office," said Mr. Ragan.

The Kim Jong Il regime has been threatening to shut down WFP in North Korea for about a year, but only now seems to be serious. The move coincides with donor fatigue on the part of WFP partners. Aid has been steadily dropping, with only 270,000 tons of food-half the amount requested by WFP-made available to North Korea this year.

Early signs also show a better harvest in store. Most compelling for North Korean officials, however, is that North Korea can lean more on China and South Korea for its food aid, neither of which require stringent monitoring of where it goes. Both nations already supply about 650,000 tons between them.

"North Korea has never particularly liked WFP monitors in country," said Stephan Haggard, a professor at the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, UC-San Diego. "Pyongyang doesn't generally care for any penetration of the country."

Mr. Haggard co-authored a report on food aid to North Korea released Sept. 1 in Washington by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. He and co-author Marcus Noland found that North Korea diverts between 10 percent and 30 percent of the food aid it receives; some South Korean aid organizations complain that up to half goes to privileged groups.

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