The White House said North Korea had taken "a serious step in the wrong direction" when the regime expelled international inspectors from the country and announced it would restart its nuclear program. USIP’s John S. Park provides regional context to the latest developments. 

 

John S. Park photo

 

The White House on April 14 said North Korea had taken "a serious step in the wrong direction” when the regime kicked international inspectors out of the country, saying it would restart its nuclear program and that it would never again participate in six-party talks over its nuclear ambitions.

John S. Park, Senior Research Associate on Northeast Asia with the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, provides regional context to the latest developments, and where things might go from here.

 

 

What do you make of the recent developments?

On April 13, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a Presidential Statement condemning North Korea's April 5 missile test. In response, North Korea announced that it would boycott the six-party talks and restart its nuclear reactor.

Shortly after this announcement, North Korea informed the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] that its inspectors would be expelled from the Yongbyon nuclear complex.

 

In light of those developments, how much of an immediate threat is this?

It's discouraging that North Korea decided to reverse its denuclearization activities. By restarting its nuclear reactor, Pyongyang would certainly raise the stakes in ongoing international efforts to effect nuclear roll-back in North Korea.

However, in terms of producing more weapons-grade plutonium, there are additional steps that go beyond restarting the Yongbyon reactor.

 

And, China has played a central role in North Korean denuclearization efforts. What can China do now?

China is in a difficult position. As the chair of the six-party talks, China has demonstrated behavior in recent UN Security Council meetings that led many observers to note that China was essentially protecting North Korea from harsh punitive measures.

The reality, however, is that China was protecting the six-party talks. In counselling the United States, Japan and South Korea to show restraint in responding to the North Korean missile test, China wanted those countries to pull back from a stronger UN condemnation in the form of a Security Council resolution with additional economic sanctions.

The UN Security Council (UNSC) Presidential Statement represents a compromise in the form of a unanimous condemnation of the North Korean missile test and a reaffirmation of existing economic sanctions. A Presidential Statement is widely viewed as a step down from a Security Council Resolution. Prior to its missile test, North Korea had warned the international community that if the UNSC issued a condemnation, it would walk away from the six-party talks. China's priority now is getting North Korea back to the talks.

While the United States would like to see China apply more direct pressure on North Korea, Beijing is reluctant to do so given North Korea's fragile state. Beijing is concerned that restricting aid or bilateral trade will trigger state collapse in North Korea --and that Beijing would then have to pick up the pieces.

 

So, does North Korea have more leverage over what the international community can do now?

With China counselling restraint and patience in dealing with North Korea and the United States, South Korea and Japan seeking to apply more pressure, the international community is clearly divided. That division enables North Korea to have more leverage in carrying out its actions.

 

What is North Korea’s end goal here?

That’s the big question. The larger goal is rather existential -- it's survival of the regime. For the short term, the Kim Jong-il regime is focused on domestic priorities particulary as they relate to the leadership transition process. Kim Jong-il was recently shown on state media opening the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly and he looked extremely frail.

His rapid weight loss has led many analysts to believe that his days are numbered. U.S. analysts are concerned that he's running out of time to oversee the leadership transition process. Should he suddenly die without appointing an official heir, these anaylysts believe that a competition for power may ensue leading to instability in a country with nuclear weapons.

 

What’s next?

Tensions are expected to escalate further.

In its own response to the missile test, South Korea announced it would join the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). Doing so would allow South Korea to participate in international efforts to interdict missiles and WMD.

North Korea reacted by declaring the South Korean announcement to be an act of war. While North Korea is known for its hardline rhetoric, this statement comes at a time of rapidly rising tensions on the Korean peninsula.

With respect to next steps regarding the six-party talks, the majority of North Korea analysts are advising against giving Pyongyang additional incentives to return to the talks.

China, in the difficult position of being chair of the six-party talks, has a vested interest in getting the talks going again. It's likely that Beijing will offer direct Chinese economic concessions to North Korea as an incentive. Beijing can do so conveniently as part of celebrations of the 60th anniversary of founding diplomatic relations between the two countries.

 

Are Pyongyang’s latest moves, and rhetoric, more of the same maneuvering and posturing – or do they represent something new?

There’s a Mark Twain quote – "history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

While there’s a lot of rhyming going on at the moment, the two different factors compared to earlier periods are -- number one, North Korea now has a nuclear arsenal and number two, Kim Jong-il's health is rapidly declining. These two new factors further raise concerns during a period of growing uncertainty inside North Korea.

 

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of USIP, which does not advocate specific policy positions.

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