The North Korean Foreign Ministry said it felt “compelled” to suspend its participation in the six-party talks because of the “hostile” attitude of the United States. Pyongyang claimed to have manufactured nuclear weapons for self-defense and said that it would retain a nuclear deterrent, whatever the circumstances.
President Bush and his new administration have steered clear of confronting Pyongyang, and North Korea had been expected to return to the talks with the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. North Korea refused to attend a fourth round scheduled for September, after a third round in June, because it hoped that Sen. John Kerry would win the U.S. election in November. It has continued to boycott the talks while coming to terms with the prospect of a second Bush administration.
The announcement Thursday was Pyongyang’s clearest claim yet that it has nuclear weapons, but not its first. Nor can it necessarily be taken at face value:
• The CIA believes Pyongyang could have had one or two atomic bombs for as long as a decade, using plutonium concealed from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It may have made more since reopening its Yongbyon reactor site two years ago, using 8,000 spent fuel rods which had been under IAEA surveillance there.
• North Korea used to insist that its plutonium program was for peaceful use, but for at least two years it has claimed to have a nuclear deterrent. Its announcement Thursday repeats what has been said before.
But in the absence of physical tests, doubts remain. It is not clear that Pyongyang really does have the weapons, nor that it has overcome difficulties mounting these on missiles. But foreign governments, used to Pyongyang’s tendency to bluff and wrong-foot its opponents, will nevertheless want to avoid complacency.
More surprising than this nuclear reaffirmation was the explicit refusal to reengage within the six-party process. Pyongyang has taken umbrage at being cited as one of six “outposts of tyranny” by the new U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. More generally, it has accused the Bush administration of wanting to antagonize and isolate it.
North Korea is locked into a separate row with Japan over its return of falsified remains of kidnap victims. There have been calls in Tokyo for sanctions against Pyongyang.
There are several strategic reasons why North Korea may have taken its current stance:
• Playing for time. Michael Green, the new director for Asia in the National Security Council (NSC), recently visited the region to convince skeptics, especially China, about U.S. evidence that North Korea has a second covert nuclear program using highly enriched uranium. This coincides with new claims that UF6, a uranium compound found in the weapons arsenal surrendered by Libya, came from Pyongyang. But Pyongyang does not usually respond so rapidly to events.
• Birthday boost. The declaration came while China and South Korea were celebrating their New Year’s holiday and just before North Korea’s major celebration of Kim Jong Il’s birthday tomorrow. The North Korean media are calling for people to rally around their leader at this time of heightened tension.
• Distraction. The regime may be trying to paper-over signs of growing dissent within the elite and discontent among the people, who have been made poorer by recent reforms. Hardliners appear to have the upper hand over moderates.
• Bargaining tactic. North Korea is typically uncompromising and hostile before it engages in talks, a tactic designed to strengthen its bargaining position. It may hope that China will put pressure on the United States to negotiate more seriously, maybe even in one-to-one talks. A North Korean diplomat at the United Nations repeated a demand for direct talks with Washington, but the White House promptly refused.
• Restrained response. The five powers have responded with restraint, expressing regret over Pyongyang’s announcement and urging it to reconsider its position and return to the six-party process.
South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon, on a visit to Washington, was particularly placatory, saying inter-Korean cooperation would continue unless the situation deteriorated further. Ban also denied press reports that Vice-President Dick Cheney, a skeptic on engagement with North Korea, had asked Seoul to refuse a recent request by Pyongyang for 500,000 tons of fertilizer. South Korea says this can be discussed at an inter-Korean economic committee, although this is also being boycotted by North Korea.
• China challenged. China is vexed by Pyongyang’s behavior. Beijing has invested considerable political capital in hosting the six-party talks, which has backing at the highest leadership levels. While avoiding any public criticism, China will exert strong pressure on North Korea in private. As North Korea’s main aid donor and trade partner, it has more leverage than most on Kim Jong Il and may well choose to use it.
While governments are playing down last week’s announcement, they will be under pressure to respond, if only because Pyongyang’s defiance complicates other policy priorities.
For example, Washington may not want to be seen to be soft on North Korea while it is taking a hard line over Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Seoul has come under heavy criticism from parliament over its policy of engagement. Pyongyang may also be pushing other governments towards defining so-called “red lines.” They have yet to do so, although nuclear proliferation and testing must surely be two of them.
The five nations will continue to put pressure on Kim Jong Il to return to the negotiating table. While tensions over the issue are growing, the relatively muted response from the international community suggests that the risk of an immediate flare-up is minimal.
Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See www.oxan.com