UN envoy assesses a 'sober' Pyongyang

Kofi Annan's delegate talks of a desire by both US and North to resolve the crisis - even as positions harden.

The UN special envoy to North Korea said this week that the regime of Kim Jong Il will continue to prepare its plutonium-reprocessing plant for operation, and told the Monitor that after four days of talks with officials in Pyongyang, the North feels "time is on its side" in the nuclear crisis.

Maurice Strong, envoy of UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan, is one of few diplomats to spend time recently in the closed regime of North Korea. Mr. Strong was in Pyongyang as war broke out in Iraq, and reports that officials there were deeply sobered by the all-out US-led attack that went ahead despite a lack of UN support.

As one of three "evil" regimes listed by President Bush, including Iran and Iraq, North officials wonder if they are next on the attack list. The atmosphere in Pyongyang is tense, Strong says, adding that the North is "preparing for war."

But recent official statements from Japan and South Korea say flatly this is an overstatement, implying it tracks too closely Pyongyang's propaganda.

Still, analysts say the North's behavior in coming weeks, as the US and the world are focused on Iraq, will determine how serious Kim Jong Il is in pursuing a "nuclear option." The Washington Post, citing White House officials, last week said the North is "working 24/7" to restart a radiochemistry lab that will turn some 800 spent-fuel rods from the Yongbyon nuclear plant into weapons-grade plutonium. But the North is running into technical difficulties, due to the age of the plant.

Strong affirmed that North officials told him they "reserved the right" to reprocess the plutonium, which until January was in sealed containers watched by UN monitors. The monitors were kicked out in January as part of a series of provocations by the North, which wants direct talks and a "nonaggression pact" with the US.

Privately, some observers feel Strong's statements favor the North. The Canadian-born envoy offered South Korean audiences a controversial take on the North's nuclear ambitions, saying at a luncheon that "[North Koreans] are prepared to abandon their plans for nuclear weapons ... but the modalities are preventing a solution."

In an interview with the Monitor, Strong offered a more nuanced view:

You call this standoff a paradox.

It is a paradox. The view in North Korea is that time is on their side. They feel the US wants to resolve this, and that South Korea and Japan want to resolve this. And they believe these states want to resolve it diplomatically. So [the North] has taken a hard-line position that they are not going to abandon their nuclear program before a process of negotiations. They feel that if the US believes in negotiations and diplomacy, the US will have to come to the table.

What was your response?

In Pyongyang, we put the other side of the story. We pointed out the US also doesn't feel time is a problem, and that it won't conduct serious talks until the nuclear program is abandoned. We expressed the counterview - that in fact time is not on their [North Korea's] side. I'm not sure time is on anyone's side. The North says it is willing to abandon its program, that it doesn't want weapons. Yet they claim the capability to reprocess plutonium and the right to test missiles, and say they may do so if they determine it is in their interest, until serious talks are offered.

The core paradox is that neither side says it feels any urgency; at the same time, the situation is deteriorating. The longer it takes, the more risks are involved.

The North says it will agree to inspections when it gets a security agreement. The US is saying it will not attack and wants a peaceful settlement, but after the North dismantles in a verifiable manner. I worry the crisis can disintegrate to the point where conflict is unavoidable, even if none of the parties wish it - and I do think neither party wishes it. The problem is that we can't find a formula for talks that anyone will accept. The US doesn't even use the word bilateral anymore. North Korea says its primary interest is security, and that can only come from the US.

Is there anything hopeful here?

the US now agrees to deliver 40,000 tons of food [to the North] immediately. In this, the US role is very important and positive. The North will get 100,000 tons of grain, which will tide them over - and the US has insisted this aid not be tied to any political agenda. This is helpful right now.

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