Weeks have now passed since the North Korean roadshows in Beijing, London and Berlin, Track 2 efforts designed to showcase Pyongyang’s willingness to return to the Six Party Talks “without preconditions.” Information continues to dribble out about what was and was not on offer, but the whole exercise is now substantially complicated by the probable restart of the Yongbyon reactor; Sig Hecker offers his sober analysis at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. What is going on?
The restart—a technical feat in itself—could reflect glitches in the HEU program. Plutonium is the technically preferable route to fissile material if the objective is miniaturization and the ability to mount a device on a longer-range missile. But North Korea is pushing on all nuclear fronts: the restarted 5-megawatt reactor; the HEU effort; and—not to be forgotten—ongoing construction on the new experimental light water reactor which could be used as a source of plutonium as well.
One possible conclusion is that the North Koreans are doing exactly what they appear to be doing: maximizing possible sources of fissile material to support the weapons stockpile, testing options and the drive to miniaturize. The North Koreans had 24 to 42 kilos of plutonium prior to the February test and spent 4-6 kilos on that test. Running the 5-megawatt reactor at full steam for two years would permit extraction of 10-12 kilos of plutonium by 2016. This option—when coupled with the HEU program–would give them more room to test.
But the North Koreans are also using the nuclear push to increase the attractiveness of the offers made in Beijing, Berlin and London, which got a frosty reception from both Washington and Seoul. In effect, the message is “come back to the talks or else.”
What was on offer? We have several versions. Leon Sigal reported that the North Koreans wanted to come back to the Six Party Talks—as the Chinese have been insisting they should—but also that North Korea was not seeking recognition as a nuclear power. This was a clever twist because in fact this does appear to be a North Korean goal, disavowals to the contrary. Even Chinese commentators have noted the risk: that North Korea comes to the table as a de facto nuclear power and then demands that US nuclear posture be on the agenda as well.
Kyunghyang Shinmun reported conversations with Joel Wit and a second unnamed attendant at the meeting that the North Koreans were willing to abide by the Leap Year Deal of February 29, 2012, which included a freeze of the nuclear program, postponement of missile tests and the re-entry of IAEA inspectors. This starting point would mark a return to the phased approach of 2007-8: freeze, disablement, ultimate dismantlement further down the line.
But there were two catches: none of these steps could be preconditions for the talks; and the North Koreans reiterated their rejection of any limitations on their ability to test “satellites,” even though such tests are in fact expressly limited in both UNSC 1874 and 2094. If talks were to begin without preconditions, then the freeze would presumably have to be negotiated in return for some concessions, such as the food aid to which the Leap Year agreement was effectively linked.
The London and Berlin meetings were attended by an impressive array of prominent Korea watchers and practitioners. In addition to Sigal– director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council–and Wit, who manages the excellent 38North blog, participants included Robert Gallucci, who played a leading role in developing the Agreed Framework; Robert Carlin, a visiting scholar at Stanford; Morton Abramowitz, former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research; Tony Namkung; and two officials who played important roles in the first Obama administration: Joseph DeTrani, former director of the National Counterproliferation Center under the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, who had the thankless task of point person on North Korea. Ambassador Bosworth came out of the meetings urging a resumption of talks. Others, such as Evans Revere at Brookings are reaching the exact opposite conclusion; that its time to get tougher still (although a close reading of his piece suggests a recognition of the need for an exit ramp as well).
Everyone seems to be going through the motions, but with decreasing conviction. North Korea’s charm offensive was almost immediately revealed to be disingenuous with the restart of Yongbyon. China responds to the restart by saying what it always says: that “all parties” must do more to reduce tensions on the peninsula. Does this include China? And the Obama administration breathes a sigh of relief; it can point to the recent restart as vindication of strategic patience.