Tenuous deal for North Korea

If North Korea holds to the pledges it made Tuesday to fulfill its promise to abandon nuclear weapons, chief US negotiator Christopher Hill thinks he knows why.

Other attempts to stop Pyongyang going nuclear have failed. This series of six-party talks has several times seemed on the verge of collapse. But diplomacy's tentative triumph Tuesday held out the prospect of victory for a multiparty, political approach to reining in Asia's pariah states. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated the deal should serve as a message to Iran that the global community will unite to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

After North Korea agreed to start dismantling its nuclear program in return for oil and economic aid, Mr. Hill, in Beijing, noted that "the first difference" between this deal and earlier failed efforts "is to make this really a multilateral effort."

But that optimism, analysts warn, is tempered by a history of broken promises that are driving the effort now to verify compliance.

"This agreement is a good sign for nuclear disarmament," says Ryoo Gil Jae of South Korea's University of North Korean Studies, "but maybe we will have trouble in the future" when the US raises the issue of the uranium program.

Others share similar doubts.

David Straub, former Korea desk chief at the State Department, warns that "a very great risk is that North Korea is using this as a way to avoid sanctions, obtain aid, and drag out the nuclear issue until the international community is accustomed to its being a declared nuclear state."

The deal, coming four months and four days after Pyongyang exploded its first nuclear device, requires North Korea to shut down and seal the nuclear facility that produces the plutonium used in its bombs within 60 days.

North Korea also agreed to provide a list of all its nuclear programs, and to allow international inspectors to monitor the closure of the nuclear plant at Yongbyon. In return, the United States and other countries involved in the negotiations will provide the struggling state with 50,000 tons of fuel oil, or its equivalent in economic aid, over the next two months.

Hill stressed that Washington does not "want anyone to think these initial actions are an end in themselves. After 60 days, we are not going to stop for a couple of years," he said. "We are going to keep right on going with the second phase," when North Korea will be required to disable all nuclear facilities in return for another 950,000 tons of oil.

Some observers suggest that this agreement could either resolve years of conflict or collapse amid more conflict, crisis, and rhetoric as has happened so often since the division of the Korean peninsula at the end of World War II.

"It will be the beginning of a new era between North Korea and the United States," says Cheong Seong Chang, a noted scholar of North Korean affairs, who is optimistic about the new deal. "North Korea will be able to begin new reform and a new opening policy."

The promise of such a breakthrough – distant though it may be – is held in the creation of five working groups agreed to on Tuesday. Those groups will tackle issues ranging from denuclearizing the peninsula to normalizing Pyongyang's relations with Washington and Tokyo and setting up a "Northeast Asia Peace and Security Mechanism."

Those provisions make Tuesday's agreement potentially far broader than its failed predecessor, the 1994 Geneva Framework Agreement.

The political context "would provide stronger and more stable grounding for anything in the agreement," says Denny Roy, researcher at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "But that would be much harder to achieve."

Given the history of failure in dealing with North Korea, Dr. Roy is skeptical of the new agreement.

"Seeing this followed through each of the steps, with both sides agreeing that they have been fulfilled, is a much harder task than simply reaching the agreement," he cautions.

North Korean state media Tuesday reported that the agreement required only the "temporary suspension of the country's nuclear activities," raising doubts about the government's interpretation of the deal.

"It is hard to judge North Korea's behavior this time," says Zhang Liangui, a North Korea expert at the Chinese Communist Party School in Beijing. "It is hard to say if they have made a definitive decision to give up nuclear weapons, or whether this is just another way to deal with the pressure."

One potential sticking point is North Korea's denial that it has a program to enrich uranium separate from the plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon. US officials have insisted that program does exist, since Mr. Hill's predecessor, James Kelly, said Pyongyang admitted it to him in 2002.

North Korean chief delegate Kim Kye Gwan said that his government "was prepared to sit with us and discuss it and reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion," Hill said of the allegations. "We need to know precisely what is involved."

Notably absent from the agreement was any mention of the US blacklisting of a Macao bank that holds North Korean assets. That sanction was the reason that North Korea gave for leaving the last round of six-party talks.

Hill said that he had pledged to the North Koreans that the Macao issue would be "resolved" within 30 days.

One of the working groups, which will meet within 30 days, will also take up Pyongyang's demand to be removed from Washington's list of states sponsoring terrorism.

Another working group is to take up normalization of relations between Japan and North Korea – a forum in which Japan can demand that North Korea account for all Japanese kidnapped to North Korea. Japan, alone among the participants at the talks, balked at providing aid to North Korea, with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe insisting first on resolution of the kidnapping issue.

Other working groups are to discuss resolving regional conflicts and a peace treaty to replace the truce that ended the Korean War in 1953 – a longstanding North Korean demand that the North has linked to demands for withdrawal of American troops from South Korea.

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