Work-Korea Analyses

June 27, 2008

Analysis: North Korea blows up reactor cooling tower, but will it hand over nuclear bombs?

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ It took years of talks, coddling and concessions to prod North Korea to step back from its decades-long effort to make atomic weapons, leading to Friday’s dramatic destruction of its nuclear reactor cooling tower.

That was the easy part.

Past experience suggests North Korea will seek more rewards before it moves further to disarm. If Pyongyang actually hands over the nuclear bombs believed to be in its arsenal _ the country’s most valuable bargaining chips _ the communist leadership would only do so after a long wish list of demands is granted.

The North has repeatedly shown a talent for brinksmanship, along with a mastery of playing countries against each other. And Pyongyang is just getting started.

Hints of the problems to come emerged just hours after the reactor tower tumbled to the ground in a cloud of dust and smoke.

While praising the U.S. for starting to remove sanctions, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said it would closely watch whether the other sides from the arms talks meet their commitments.

“What is important in the days ahead is for the U.S. to fundamentally drop its hostile policy toward the (North), a policy that compelled (North Korea) to have access to a nuclear deterrent,” the ministry said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

So far, the United States and other countries have agreed to give the North the equivalent of 1 million tons of oil for disabling its main nuclear facility and providing a list of nuclear programs. The U.S. is also moving to eliminate some sanctions against the regime.

The North has 45 days to agree on procedures to verify its declaration, the date by when the U.S. plans to remove the country from a State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The next and far more complicated phase of the disarmament process is for North Korea to abandon and dismantle its nuclear weapons programs. So far, the other countries have not said what they will give the North in exchange for doing so.

For dismantling its reactor, the energy-starved country is expected to demand a new reactor of a type it would use solely for generating electricity.

Under a 1994 disarmament deal with the U.S., the North was offered two reactors for power. But construction was abandoned long before they were completed amid the latest nuclear crisis that began in 2002, when the U.S. accused Pyongyang of pursuing a secret uranium enrichment program.

The North still wants the reactors and won a concession in a September 2005 agreement that other countries would talk “at an appropriate time” about a new reactor.

To finally end the nuclear threat, the U.S. will want the North to hand over its bombs. But in exchange, North Korea will likely demand security guarantees from Washington and normal diplomatic relations between the two countries.

As early as Monday, the chief negotiators from the six nations involved in the nuclear talks _ North and South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia _ will meet in Beijing to begin discussions on the specifics of how North Korea’s declaration of its nuclear programs will be verified. The key element that requires verification is the amount of plutonium North Korea says it has produced. Officials say that may take several months to determine.

As early as July, even before the declaration is verified, the highest-level contact between the United States and North Korea since 2000 may take place at a meeting of the foreign ministers of the six nations involved in the talks. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would attend this as-yet unscheduled meeting along with her North Korean counterpart.

The U.S. technically remains at war with the North. Some 28,500 American troops are stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the Korean War, where fighting stopped in an 1953 armistice but no peace treaty was ever signed.

The bombs from that war left the peninsula bitterly divided. The destruction of the reactor tower, which was not shown on North Korean television, is a landmark step showing how far the U.S. and North Korea have come since then, even as peace in northeast Asia remains elusive.

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Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.


June 25, 2008

Where’s the bomb? North Korea’s long-awaited nuclear declaration excludes atomic bombs

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ North Korea is expected this week to turn over its long-delayed accounting of its nuclear weapons activities, part of a chain of events leading to a unique photo opportunity: the destruction of the cooling tower at Pyongyang’s main reactor.

One item that won’t make the declaration, which the White House says is due Thursday, will be North Korea’s nuclear bombs. The omission means the world will have to wait for an answer to the question at the heart of the nearly six-year-old standoff: Is the North ready to give up its nuclear weapons?

North Korea has invited foreign TV stations to broadcast the toppling of the cooling tower to demonstrate its plan to give up its nuclear ambitions. Sung Kim, the top State Department expert on Korea, will travel to North Korea for the planned destruction of the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, an official at South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing ministry policy.

U.S. officials who earlier insisted North Korea’s declaration should be “complete and correct” have repeatedly scaled back expectations for the document in the wake of resistance from Pyongyang, which failed to meet a deadline for submitting the list at the end of last year.

Already, the declaration that the White House says is due Thursday is not expected to include details of the North’s alleged attempts to enrich uranium _ the dispute that sparked the nuclear standoff in late 2002. The list also will not describe how the North allegedly helped Syria build a nuclear plant.

Instead, those thorny issues will simply be “acknowledged” by Pyongyang, with the U.S. hoping that it can get more information in later discussions with the North, given that it has few other ways to dig for intelligence from the world’s most closed country.

The main U.S. envoy to nuclear talks with North Korea affirmed this week that the communist nation’s bombs also will not make the cut for the declaration. Instead, details on the bombs will be left to the next stage of the talks, when Pyongyang is supposed to abandon and dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

“The North Koreans have acknowledged that we have to deal with the weapons,” Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said in Beijing. “We’re going to deal with it as soon as we sit down again to begin to map out the remaining piece of this negotiation.”

The White House said Wednesday it will move quickly to lift sanctions and remove North Korea from the U.S. blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for handing over the declaration.

The North is expected in the declaration to say how much plutonium it has produced at its main reactor facility. The next step in the disarmament talks will be to verify that claim, through procedures that Hill said would be set up within 45 days.

That verification will not mean the U.S. or any other country will yet actually see the weapons-grade plutonium, or that nuclear inspectors will roam the countryside peeking into the North’s vast network of secret underground tunnels to track down traces of radioactive material.

Instead, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this month that verification at first will simply mean reviewing documents and inspecting the reactor to infer how much plutonium was produced, to be compared with the amount that the North claims in the declaration.

“Once we have a clearer view of how much plutonium has actually been made, I think we’ll also have a clearer view of what might have happened to it,” Rice told an audience at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

In a report earlier this year, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security estimated the North has between 28 and 50 kilograms (61 and 110 pounds) of plutonium, which could be enough to build from six to 10 bombs. The North proved it could build a working nuclear bomb when it carried out an underground nuclear test blast in October 2006.

The fireworks at the reactor will be a mostly symbolic move signaling that North Korea does not intend to make more plutonium for bombs. The reactor was shut down last year and already largely disabled so that it cannot easily be restarted.

What happens next with the bombs and fissile material the North already has stockpiled will be the real test of Pyongyang’s commitment to disarm.

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Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.

March 30, 2008

Analysis: NKorea provokes SKorea’s new conservative government to soften policy

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ South Korea’s new conservative government has shown it’s not afraid to speak up to nuclear-armed North Korea, prompting the communist regime to retaliate with increasingly belligerent threats.

But the North’s recent provocations _ test-firing missiles that could strike South Korean targets and expelling officials from a shared industrial zone _ were unlikely to change South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s stance on relations with Pyongyang.

North Korea’s actions weren’t unexpected.

Seoul had been bracing for a response after it voted in favor of a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution Thursday condemning the North’s rights abuses, usually labeled among the world’s most atrocious by international advocacy groups. In a testy exchange at the council earlier this month, the North warned South Korea such allegations could affect ties.

The South also said this month it would not expand a shared Korean industrial zone in the North’s border city of Kaesong without progress in the international standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. The project is one of the most high-profile symbols of the reconciliation between the two Koreas under the past decade of liberal Seoul governments, and a key source of hard currency for North Korea.

The Lee administration’s tough talk follows his campaign pledge to be more assertive with the North and seek benefits in return for Seoul’s economic aid. Lee has even suggested the North should consider reciprocating for humanitarian aid by handing over hundreds of South Korean POWs and captive civilians.

Lee only took office a month ago, and any policy retreat in the face of North Korean anger now would be an acknowledgment of a mistake and also give the opposition United Democratic Party grist for campaign attacks in parliamentary elections scheduled in less than two weeks.

The April 9 vote will determine whether Lee’s Grand National Party takes control of the National Assembly, which would make it easier for the former Hyundai executive to pass reforms to liberalize the economy and spur growth, his main policy goal.

The GNP has already suffered blows to its popularity due to internal disputes over how to choose candidates.

Under the “sunshine policy” of the earlier liberal presidents, Seoul largely refrained from public criticism of Pyongyang as it placed the highest priority on maintaining stability.

The North and South held summits in 2000 and 2007 as part of their reconciliation efforts. Lee has also said he would be willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, but only if it would help end the international standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons.

The North last year made unprecedented strides in scaling back its nuclear ambitions, starting to disable its main atomic facilities so they cannot be restarted.

But talks on further disarmament have stalled over the North’s promise to give a full declaration of all its nuclear programs. The North says it has done so, but the U.S. alleges the North is leaving out key details such as its alleged uranium enrichment program and nuclear cooperation with Syria.

As the North fired off its missiles Friday, the country’s Foreign Ministry blamed the Bush administration for the nuclear impasse, saying it could affect ongoing disablement of its atomic facilities.

With those talks deadlocked and relations with Seoul stymied, the North will likely seek other provocations.

One move it could make would be to spark a clash on the disputed western sea border between the Koreas, where crab fishing season is set to start in May. The North insists the frontier set by the U.N. amid the Korean War should be redrawn.

The sea border has seen regular small-scale confrontations between the Koreas, including deadly battles in 1999 and 2002 that left six South Koreans dead.

Like Lee, the Bush administration took office in 2000 with a harder line against the North, spurning earlier agreements made with Pyongyang under the Clinton administration. But the U.S. made a policy U-turn after North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006.

The North is not expected to go that far again, but the impoverished regime could still take the region for a rocky ride.

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Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.


December 15, 2007

Analysis: New SKorean government to be more critical on NKorea aid, improve US ties

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ One of North Korea’s worst fears is about to come true: The liberal South Korean government that has pampered Pyongyang with aid while shying from criticism of its rights abuses is about to be swept from office.

Conservative candidate Lee Myung-bak, a former Hyundai executive, is widely expected to win Wednesday’s presidential election in South Korea. He will bring a businessman’s eye to dealings with the North, pledging in his campaign to take a more critical view of Seoul’s aid and demand more in return.

The shift to the right in South Korea’s presidential Blue House will also foster improved ties with Washington. Outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun and U.S. President George W. Bush have had a rocky relationship marked by awkward moments.

Still, analysts predict the liberals’ departure will not lead to an about-face in Seoul’s “sunshine” policy of engagement with North Korea. South Korean assistance will still flow as long as Pyongyang continues to scale back its nuclear weapons program.

“We are living in the so-called post-Cold War era,” said Paik Hak-soon, director of North Korean studies at the Sejong Institute, a private security think tank near Seoul. “The competition between South Korea and North Korea is practically over.”

Lee, who was mayor of Seoul until 2006, has said he will re-evaluate promises Roh made to the North.

At a summit meeting in October, Roh and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il agreed to a long list of projects in the North including new joint economic zones, a shipbuilding factory, tourism ventures, and road and rail improvements.

Roh has followed the policy of his predecessor Kim Dae-jung, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for engaging the North after holding the first-ever summit between the Koreas.

But Roh’s moves have also been criticized by conservatives as a thinly veiled attempt to boost the liberals’ fortunes in the election. Fearful of a conservative victory, the North was a willing accomplice, even agreeing to restart limited cargo rail service with the South the week before the vote.

“It’s obvious that the governments in both Koreas tried to make as many promises as possible in view of the imminent change of government to force the next government in Seoul to follow through on them,” Lee said in a recent interview with the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

In campaign materials, he calls for Seoul to “move away from the unilateral policy of appeasement without principle and embrace a strategy of reciprocity.”

Voters appear to have mostly yawned at Roh’s last-minute push and remain focused on the domestic economy, which many feel has been dragged down by the liberals’ mismanagement.

But even if the conservatives regain power, the path toward reconciliation has already been set by a decade of liberal rule in the South.

The U.S. has also reversed its hardline policy of refusing to grant concessions and is now doling out incentives even before North Korea hands over its nuclear weapons. The switch has coaxed Pyongyang to begin decommissioning its main atomic reactor under the watch of American experts.

Washington’s change of heart has allowed the South and the U.S. to largely set aside past disagreements on how to deal with the North.

Still, relations between Seoul and Washington have not been smooth, not least because of the poor chemistry between Roh and Bush, displayed most vividly in a joint public appearance in September. Roh repeatedly pressed the U.S. president to back a declaration to end the Korean War. Instead, Bush simply reaffirmed his stance that the North must totally disarm before it can have normal relations with the U.S.

Lee has said improved ties with the U.S. would be a priority.

“The hope in Washington will be that (South Korea) coordinates its policies with the North with ours, rather than acting independently, which runs the risk of undercutting our policy,” said Robert Gallucci, a former U.S. diplomat who signed a 1994 disarmament deal with North Korea and is now dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

North Korea appears resigned to a Lee victory.

Earlier in the campaign, its state-run Korean Central News Agency called Lee “stupid and foolish,” but it has not mentioned his name for more than a month.

Instead, the North’s invective turned to another conservative candidate, Lee Hoi-chang, who is a distant second or third in opinion polls. He has called for a tougher line on Pyongyang to force it to dismantle its nuclear weapons.

A North Korean institute minced no words, according to the news agency, labeling Lee Hoi-chang “a fascist man-killer, separatist and confrontational maniac, kingpin of irregularities and corruption and human scum.”

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Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.


October 5, 2007

Analysis: No knockout punch for peace as NKorea skirts nuclear issue at summit

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ South Korea’s president raised North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s arm into the air Thursday like a champion prizefighter after a bout, wrapping up the second-ever summit between the divided Koreas.

But after three days of meetings, the two Koreas remain far from delivering a knockout punch for peace, because of the lingering threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons _ a subject mostly glossed over at the Pyongyang summit.

Kim and South Korea’s Roh Moo-hyun agreed Thursday on a symbolic drive for peace to end the decades-long stalemate that ensued after the Korean War was halted with a cease-fire, not a formal peace treaty. The two sides face each other across what is commonly called the world’s most heavily fortified border.

Roh and the authoritarian North Korean ruler said in a joint declaration that they would “cooperate to push” for an end to the Korean War by raising the issue with related countries _ presumably meaning the U.S. and China, which also fought in that conflict.

The pact signed in Pyongyang mentioned the North’s nuclear weapons program only in a single sentence, noting both Koreas remain committed to previous agreements at international arms talks that include the U.S. and regional powers.

It was progress at those separate six-nation nuclear talks _ fostered by an about-face in U.S. policy, granting concessions to win Pyongyang’s trust _ that enabled Roh to get this week’s photo opportunity with Kim, just months before the South Korean leader leaves office.

As part of those talks, the North shut down a decrepit plutonium-producing reactor in July and agreed Wednesday to disable the facility by the end of the year, so it cannot be easily restarted.

The nuclear agreement drew praise from U.S. President George W. Bush, who would have to be brought into any real conversation about peace between the Koreas.

Roh and Bush met last month on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific summit in Australia at a moment remembered most for its diplomatic clumsiness, where Roh repeatedly pressed the American president to explicitly say that a peace settlement with the North could be in the offing. Officials on both sides dismissed the apparent discord as a translation problem.

Bush insisted that any peace deal was in Kim’s hands, requiring the total nuclear disarmament of his country.

That goal remains elusive; the North will insist on major rewards to abandon its most potent weapons.

In exchange for disabling the reactor, North Korea is to get the equivalent of 1 million tons of oil to fuel its beleaguered economy and cope with energy shortages that often plunge even the showcase capital of Pyongyang into darkness.

The price for giving up his bombs will be far higher than agreements at this week’s summit to expand economic projects.

The North’s initial demand is to be removed from a U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a step toward ending its pariah status that would make Pyongyang eligible for international loans.

It also has long coveted a new nuclear reactor that could help generate power. Under a 1994 disarmament deal, the U.S. offered it two reactors _ of a type that cannot easily be used to make bombs. But that deal went awry when Washington claimed Pyongyang broke the agreement by starting a secret uranium enrichment program.

In the latest nuclear standoff, the U.S. so far has agreed only to discuss such reactors.

Roh toasted the 65-year-old Kim’s health at least twice during festivities around the summit, and the pudgy North Korean himself denied suffering from any physical ailments as he bid farewell Thursday to the South Koreans.

Kim views his nuclear weapons as an insurance policy against his forceful removal from power _ meaning he is likely to hold on to his bombs as long as he hopes to remain in good health in his fortress nation.

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Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.

August 8, 2007

Analysis: North-South Korea summit likely to bring broad agreements but no breakthrough

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will likely put on his best show for South Korea’s visiting president, with thousands of enthusiastic supporters called out to line the streets of the capital to herald the second-ever summit between the two Koreas.

But when those cheers die down, the actual results from Kim’s meeting with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun later this month may prove to be more emotional than concrete.

The summit, which has no specific agenda, will be a milestone in North-South relations but likely not bring any dramatic new initiatives in a region where North Korea has been a consistent threat to stability. Instead, the leaders are expected to reaffirm the important strides made so far, express their common will to rid the peninsula of nuclear weapons and ensure that both sides keep up the momentum toward reducing tension.

North Korea does not enter into any international negotiation without expecting to get something in return, which in this case could also mean more assistance for its ailing economy.

The first meeting of the leaders of the North and South, in June 2000, captured the hearts of the Korean people. Kim grasped the hand of then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung as he stepped onto the tarmac in Pyongyang, a moment immortalized on magazine covers and even a North Korean postage stamp.

The most poignant result came in the thousands of aging Koreans who fulfilled dreams of seeing relatives on the other side of the peninsula in a series of tear-filled reunions that continue to this day. Roads and rail lines were reconnected across the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone that divides the countries, and North and South Koreans now work together at a joint industrial park in the North.

This time, finding such landmark goals may prove elusive.

The summit comes as North Korea already appears to be eagerly responding to U.S. efforts to defuse a nuclear crisis, after Washington eased its hard-line stance and agreed to North Korean demands to resolve a separate financial dispute.

North Korea shut down its plutonium-making nuclear reactor in July, and the communist nation is already talking about next steps to disable the facilities so they cannot easily be restarted. In talks that ended Wednesday at the truce village of Panmunjom, North Korea offered to move quickly to disarm even if some aid in exchange is delayed because of technical reasons, South Korean deputy nuclear envoy Lim Sung-nam said.

With the nuclear issue really turning on relations between Pyongyang and Washington, the North and South Korean leaders will likely just reaffirm at their summit that they share the goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula _ an oft-stated mantra by both sides.

Progress on denuclearization could eventually foster a more profound achievement: finally signing a peace treaty to end the Korean War and setting up a peace regime that would spread stability across northeast Asia.

While Roh and Kim will likely address that prospect, the issue again has to involve other countries. China and United States also fought in that war, which ended in a 1953 cease-fire. Some 28,000 U.S. troops remain in South Korea as a legacy of the conflict and as a deterrent to the North.

Enthusiasm for this month’s meeting is tempered by concerns it aims to serve political ends ahead of South Korea’s December presidential election. Roh, who leaves office in February, has been struggling with low popularity and his liberals have yet to find a candidate to gain significant traction with voters.

Kim and Roh stand on common ground in seeking to keep the opposition from power in Seoul.

The conservative Grand National Party, which now enjoys massive leads in opinion polls, has historically taken a more critical view of engagement with the North. It has recently softened its stance, but still would be expected to put more pressure on Pyongyang to make good on reforms in exchange for aid.

North Korea’s propaganda machine regularly lambastes the Grand National Party and has even called directly on South Koreans not to give it their votes.

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Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.

August 2, 2007

Analysis: South Korean anger over US role in hostage crisis could affect domestic politics

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ Frustration over the plight of South Koreans seized by the Taliban is starting to focus on the United States, a frequent target of resentment here.

Politicians and citizens of all persuasions are increasingly calling on Washington to help resolve the 15-day-old standoff, believing the United States to be the only country capable of pushing Afghanistan to meet the captors’ demands that Taliban prisoners be freed.

The United States has so far simply said it remains in contact with the South Korean and Afghan governments on the issue. As the hostage crisis drags on, South Koreans are increasingly questioning what they have received from the U.S. in exchange for sending soldiers to support the U.S.-led coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The course of the crisis could affect a presidential election this year in this key U.S. ally on China’s doorstep.

An anti-American backlash could boost liberals who have increasingly pushed for Seoul to assert its independence from Washington at the expense of the conservative pro-U.S. opposition that now holds a commanding lead.

Taliban militants kidnapped the 23 South Koreans near Ghazni, Afghanistan on July 19. Demanding the release of militant prisoners, including some held by the United States, the hostage-takers have killed two male captives so far.

A delegation of top South Korean lawmakers left Thursday for Washington to press their case for an exception to the U.S. policy of refusing to make concessions to terrorists.

Richard Boucher, a senior State Department official, said the United States is not ruling out military force to free the hostages. But a South Korean official said Foreign Minister Song Min-soon and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte had agreed during a meeting Thursday in the Philippines to rule out a military attempt to end the standoff.

Afghan officials said the volunteers’ captors have agreed to meet with South Korea’s ambassador, though they had not yet agreed on a venue.

In South Korea, a nightly candlelight vigil calling for the South Korean hostages to return home safely has recently moved to a new site in central Seoul next to the U.S. Embassy. Some protesters have carried signs with a U.S. flag being smashed by a fist and appealed to the White House: “Bush: Don’t kill, negotiate.”

Candidates in South Korea’s December presidential elections have been happy to play the populist, anti-American card, which finds resonance in a country often torn between greater powers.

“I want to ask what kind of judgment the U.S. government would have made if the 23 hostages were Americans,” Chung Dong-young, a well-known liberal presidential hopeful, told reporters this week.

Tragedy and anti-Americanism have turned the course of a South Korean election before.

In 2002, two girls were killed in a traffic accident with a U.S. military vehicle. The soldiers involved were exonerated, spawning weeks of anti-American fervor that rang out through election day and helped President Roh Moo-hyun win a come-from-behind victory with a pledge not to “kowtow” to Washington.

Since taking office, Roh’s liberal government and the conservative Bush administration have frequently hit dissonant notes, even as they remain close allies.

They have argued about how to deal with North Korea and its nuclear weapons program, and about the costs for U.S. troops deployed in the South _ some 28,000 American forces on a mission to deter a possible North Korean invasion.

Washington wants Seoul to share more of the costs for its deployment, but South Korea argues it has contributed forces to Afghanistan and Iraq for non-combat reconstruction missions.

“The South Korean government had this tragedy coming where it cannot do anything to protect the lives of South Koreans while dispatching troops to the U.S. war on terrorism so readily, citing the Korea-U.S. alliance,” the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a major civic group, said in this week.

The president’s office has been more diplomatic, simply asking the “international community” for flexibility, although it’s clear the message is aimed at the Americans.

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Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.

July 17, 2007

U.S. seeking to avoid repeat of past failure in nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

BEIJING (AP) _ North Korea shutters its atomic reactor and is no longer making plutonium for nuclear bombs, prompting aid shipments to flow to the impoverished regime that struggles with shortages of electricity and food.

That happened Saturday as Pyongyang took its first step toward disarmament since the latest nuclear standoff began in late 2002. It’s also exactly what happened in 1994 after the North struck a disarmament deal with the U.S.

As arms negotiators gather anew this week in Beijing, Washington is wrestling with the challenge of preventing history from repeating itself _ and having another disarmament agreement end in failure.

Envoys arrived Tuesday for talks on the next steps for North Korea’s disarmament that Washington says it hopes will lead to disabling the nuclear facilities by the end of the year, meaning they could not be easily reactivated.

After initial meetings with the North, U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill expressed optimism that a timeframe for future steps could be agreed upon.

“I think we’re all in the same ballpark,” Hill said after seeing his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye Gwan, ahead of the resumed six-nation nuclear talks Wednesday. “We had a good discussion _ at this point there are no show stoppers.”

But as Hill has noted, the reactor shutdown itself is only significant if it leads to future steps that irrevocably prevent North Korea from making more nuclear bombs.

The North also shut down the reactor in 1994 after signing a deal with Washington, getting oil shipments in return and the promise of two nuclear reactors for generating electricity. Pyongyang was supposed to begin dismantling its atomic program only after the new reactors _ a type that cannot be easily used to make weapons _ were completed.

But construction dragged on for years as the agreement lacked support from the U.S. Congress.

Amid the stalling, the U.S. believes the North embarked on a uranium enrichment program in secret separately from its known plutonium facilities. Either plutonium or uranium can be used to make atomic bombs.

In 2002, U.S. diplomats confronted the North with the alleged evidence of the uranium program and claims Pyongyang confessed, although it has never publicly done so. The U.S. halted oil shipments, leading to eventual collapse of the accord and the standoff that exists today.

Washington says things are different this time.

Instead of an agreement only with the North, the U.S. has brought a handful of regional partners to the negotiating table: China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

In principle, Beijing and Seoul are able to apply more leverage on the North as its main trade partners and sources of aid.

“I don’t think it’s going to be so easy for the North Koreans to walk away from this agreement,” Hill told The Associated Press in an interview this week. “A lot of countries are stakeholders to this agreement.”

The 1994 deal set out no strict deadlines, meaning the North was assured of regular oil shipments without end until its new reactors were ready.

The latest deal, inked in February, limits the total energy aid the North will receive to the equivalent of 1 million tons of oil and set a deadline for the shutdown of the reactor.

However, North Korea missed the reactor deadline by 13 weeks, after the U.S. delayed fulfilling a separate promise to help free North Korean funds frozen in a bank in the Chinese territory of Macau. Washington blacklisted that bank in 2005 for its alleged help laundering money for the North Korean regime.

The U.S. backed down from its refusal to address the bank issue amid the nuclear talks to win the North’s agreement to shut down its nuclear reactor.

Previously, American officials had shunned discussing any rewards for North Korea until it completely and irreversibly dismantled its nuclear program, arguing that violating that principle would be tantamount to giving in to nuclear blackmail.

The next milestone in the process will be North Korea’s obligation to list all its nuclear programs, and the U.S. has said that must include the uranium program as well.

But Hill already gave signs Tuesday that the United States could bend on the timing.

“I don’t like to get into a situation where if we don’t nail down the declaration, then we can’t start any disablement,” he said. “I want to have a little flexibility on that.”

To make sure it avoids a painful case of nuclear deja vu, the U.S. will be expected to again summon its will to compromise.

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Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.

May 17, 2007

Train tests between Koreas unlikely to lead to further reconciliation progress soon

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

MUNSAN, South Korea (AP) _ The trains that rumbled through the bitter frontier dividing the Korean peninsula for a one-time test run of restored rail links Thursday represent a symbolic stride for reconciliation between North and South Korea.

But any further moves to defuse tension on the heavily armed border will likely come up against the same types of delays, backtracking and broken promises that have plagued all other attempts at rapprochement with the world’s most reclusive regime.

The North took nearly seven years before allowing the test run of trains agreed in June 2000 between leader Kim Jong Il and then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. There is no telling how long it could take before people can line up to buy tickets for trips to the North and destinations beyond. It is unlikely that North Korea will allow its citizens to make the trip south.

“If it took seven years just to be able to reconnect the lines and conduct the tests, it could take even longer than that for trains to run across the country,” said Peter Beck, head of the Seoul office of the International Crisis Group think-tank.

Kim Jong Il is concerned about outside influences loosening his grip on power as he faces growing pressure to change his society. Even key ally China has repeatedly sought to show visiting North Koreans the lessons it has learned and financial rewards it has reaped from reforming its economy.

In an indication of how Kim sought to minimize the significance of Thursday’s test, the North sent only 50 people on each of two trains that ran on the restored tracks on the eastern and western sides of the peninsula _ half of what was called for under an earlier proposal for 100 people from each side. The South still sent 100 officials and other citizens on each train.

Despite its reluctance, Pyongyang also realizes that supporters of reconciliation in the South are reeling from a series of perceived failures, with their engagement policies under constant challenge due to the North’s refusal to step back from producing nuclear bombs.

The Korean war ended in a 1953 cease-fire that has never been replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically at war.

Allowing the very limited rail test was a way to throw the South a bone without sacrificing much.

The tests also enabled the North to secure an agreement to receive some $86.6 million (euro64 million) of raw materials to make clothes, shoes and soap to help its economy. In exchange, the South received rights to explore mineral resources in the North _ but it is unclear what value that will have.

For its part, South Korea will be forced to restrain itself from embracing its neighbor too quickly without progress on the nuclear issue _ which remains deadlocked over an unrelated financial dispute over $25 million (euro18.5 million) in frozen funds that North Korea insists it gets back before disarming.

Seoul has repeatedly promised Washington that its efforts under the “sunshine policy” to foster reform in the North will not get ahead of progress on the nuclear standoff _ which reached a climax in October when Pyongyang conducted its first-ever underground nuclear test.

But the only fireworks that rang out Thursday across the DMZ were bursts of colored smoke sent into the sky as the South Korean train headed north. To achieve any further cause for celebration will take many more patient rounds of give-and-take with North Korea.

___

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.

April 14, 2007

North Korea’s failure to meet reactor shutdown deadline unlikely to derail process _ yet

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ The latest missed deadline in the tortuous years of negotiations aimed at getting North Korea to stop making nuclear weapons is not expected to upend the process, but it is a sign that a lack of trust lingers between Washington and Pyongyang.

North Korea failed to shut down and seal its sole operating nuclear reactor by Saturday, as it had pledged to do in February.

Nevertheless, Pyongyang said Friday it remains committed to that promise, and plans to act after confirming that funds frozen by U.S. sanctions have been released _ its main condition for disarmament since late 2005.

The only immediate effect of the missed deadline is that the North will not receive 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil it was promised _ part of 1 million tons of oil it will get for dismantling its nuclear programs under the February agreement.

The other sides in the disarmament talks _ the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea _ are not expected to raise too much of a fuss that Pyongyang did not keep its word, because Washington also failed to resolve the dispute over the frozen funds within 30 days as it had promised.

The frozen US$25 million (euro18.6 million) _ held in dozens of accounts in a bank in the semiautonomous Chinese territory of Macau _ was freed only in the past week due to technical difficulties, just days before the shutdown deadline.

In Beijing on Saturday, the main U.S. negotiator on North Korea sounded a note of frustration over the missed deadline, but refrained from directly criticizing Pyongyang.

“We don’t have a lot of momentum right now. That is for sure,” Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said.

For North Korea, it’s not just about the money.

Pyongyang views the resolution of the financial dispute as an indication that Washington could be stepping back from its hard-line foreign policy that included the isolated communist regime in an “axis of evil” along with Iran and Saddam-era Iraq.

The U.S. also agreed in February to enter talks with North Korea aimed at normalizing relations and putting aside the hostility that has lingered since they fought each other in the 1950-53 Korean War. The conflict ended in a cease-fire that has never been replaced by a peace treaty.

A newspaper aligned with the North Korean regime wrote days ago that shutting down the reactor would mean the North “begins taking procedures to end war with the U.S.”

“It is out of question to give (nuclear facilities) up without a guarantee of peace,” the Japan-based Choson Sinbo wrote.

North Korea told a visiting U.S. delegation in the past week that it deserved another 30 days after the money was released to shut down the reactor. The delegation disagreed.

No matter when the shutdown happens, it is still just the first small step in the disarmament process and would be no great sacrifice for North Korea, because it could be easily reversed.

A bigger hurdle will be persuading the North to dismantle all its facilities that produce materials used to make nuclear devices. No timeline has been set for that process, which could take years.

Completing the disarmament would entail a final step that the North seems hesitant to commit to: giving up as many as a dozen nuclear bombs that it may have already made.

To achieve that, the U.S. will have to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that it’s ready to embrace North Korea, and that Pyongyang’s inclusion in the “axis of evil” is history best forgotten.

____

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.


March 22, 2007

Again, world waits on North Korea’s disarmament amid impasse over finances

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ Once again, the world is waiting on North Korea.

The communist nation agreed last month to start dismantling its nuclear weapons programs, but much of the optimism over that breakthrough accord has been sapped this week by a holdup over a bank transfer.

North Korea refused to talk substantively about its disarmament pledge at meetings in Beijing until it received US$25 million (euro18.8 million) from accounts frozen by Macau authorities after the U.S. blacklisted a bank in that Chinese territory in 2005 for allegedly helping Pyongyang launder money.

The freeze led the North to stay away from the six-nation nuclear talks for more than a year, during which it conducted its first nuclear test. Pyongyang only agreed to return to the negotiations to talk about its money, and after that only pledged to shut down its sole operating atomic reactor within 60 days because the U.S. promised to resolve the financial issue in a month _ and offered energy aid worth 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil.

The North’s refusal to take part in talks this week left other negotiators _ from China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. _ twiddling their thumbs while they waited for technicalities involving international money transfers to be resolved. The talks broke off Thursday when the North Korean envoy, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, headed home.

Even the South Koreans, typically filled with patience and understanding for their often belligerent neighbors, have been throwing up their hands in frustration at the impasse.

“Absurd and preposterous things are happening, but no one really knows why these things are happening,” South Korean envoy Chun Yung-woo said Wednesday.

Looking at the North’s past patterns of behavior should have made clear the hard-line regime always looks at issues extremely literally _ and expects others to do the same. Just as the U.S. would want Pyongyang to stick to its promise to shut down the reactor by an April 14 deadline, so too does the North expect to get its money back on time.

The North “seems to be under fairly strict instructions from Pyongyang not to do much negotiating unless the money issue is (resolved),” the U.S. envoy Christopher Hill said earlier this week.

He called the obstacle a “Chinese-North Korean paperwork exercise.”

“The day I’m able to explain to you North Korean thinking is probably the day I’ve been in this process too long,” Hill said Thursday.

The frozen money issue goes beyond the amount in the bank. It was part of a U.S. campaign to deepen the North’s financial isolation by warning banks around the world to shun business from Pyongyang because it could potentially be tainted with illegal activity.

The U.S. says it resolved the issue by completing its investigation of Macau’s Banco Delta Asia bank, blaming it for helping North Korea launder money and banning U.S. institutions from dealings with the firm. The move was meant to then allow Macau to release the funds.

The deal to resolve the issue came after an about-face in U.S. policy that has drawn strong criticism from conservatives in Washington who demand a hard line against the North.

Still, that raises the question of how to treat money the U.S. has insisted for months was connected to illegal activity, including counterfeiting, illegal drug sales and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

One of the reasons mentioned for the transfer not going through is that the bank where North Korea wants to receive the funds, Bank of China, is apparently reluctant to accept money allegedly tainted by blackmarket dealings. The bank, which is listed in Hong Kong, is the second-largest of China’s major state-run banks and has aspirations to become a global lender.

The arms talks began Monday with cautious optimism, on the heels of a visit to Pyongyang by the chief U.N. nuclear inspector who discussed how to verify the North’s pledge to shutter its reactor. The agreement had spread feelings of warmth across a region where North Korean provocations frequently rattle nerves, and raised tantalizing hopes of new security cooperation and even a resolution to the 53-year-old cease-fire that lingers from the Korean War.

Now, an old issue that has stymied negotiations before remains unresolved _ and with it a new agreement aimed at finally ending the North’s production of nuclear weapons hangs in the balance.

___

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.

February 28, 2007

Questions over North Korea’s alleged uranium program could undo disarmament deal

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ It was late 2002 when U.S. officials in the North Korean capital Pyongyang confronted their hosts with intelligence purporting to prove the North was embarking on a program to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs.

The Americans said they were surprised when the secretive North Koreans actually fessed up to their atomic dealings _ although the North since then has never publicly acknowledged doing so and some critics dispute what really was said.

The allegation launched the latest nuclear crisis, with the U.S. and its allies halting aid under an earlier disarmament agreement that they said the North had violated. That prompted North Korea to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restart its sole functioning atomic reactor, later leading to six-nation talks seeking to get the North out of the nuclear weapons business.

Now, more than four years later and in the wake of the North’s nuclear bomb test in October, the communist nation has agreed again to follow the path of disarmament under a Feb. 13 accord with the U.S. and four other countries.

As hopes rise of an end to the latest nuclear standoff, the fog of confusion about the North’s uranium enrichment program is also slowly starting to lift _ and appearing to be less a menacing prospect than was previously assumed. But the uranium issue could still be a crucial stumbling block in whether the disarmament plan succeeds in eliminating North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

The main U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill appeared to minimize the uranium allegations during comments last week in Washington.

He said the United States has information that North Korea has “made certain purchases of equipment which is entirely consistent with a highly enriched uranium program.” But he added that such a program would “require a lot more equipment than we know that they have actually purchased” and “production techniques that we are not sure whether they have mastered.”

On Wednesday, Hill again was pressed on the uranium issue at a Congressional hearing.

“How far they’ve gotten; whether they’ve actually been able to produce highly enriched uranium at this time _ I mean these are issues that intelligence analysts grapple with. But what we know is they have made the purchases, and we need to have complete clarity on this program,” he said.

South Korea’s top nuclear negotiator, Chun Young-woo, also said last week that other countries knew about the uranium program through North Korea’s shopping abroad, but that the country wasn’t believed to be actively enriching the material for bombs.

The U.S. had wanted the uranium program specifically mentioned in the Feb. 13 accord, but backed down when the North refused to let it be included. Still, officials from the other countries involved have said the uranium program must be addressed under the section of the agreement that requires Pyongyang to detail all its nuclear doings to international nuclear inspectors.

The North’s acknowledged nuclear program is based on a Soviet-designed reactor in the city of Yongbyon, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Pyongyang. That area is also home to a reprocessing center that takes the fuel rods from the reactor and extracts plutonium usable for bombs.

North Korean officials recently told visiting U.S. experts that the radioactive core for the Oct. 9 nuclear test was made from plutonium produced at Yongbyon.

No one has publicly said where the North’s alleged uranium program is, and the country has a vast network of underground tunnels that would be a likely hiding place.

The belief that the North was seeking a uranium program is based in part on its acquisition of aluminum tubes _ an echo of similar accusations about Iraq in the run-up to the war there that was waged on claims Saddam Hussein was seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction. The weapons in Iraq were never found.

However, David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security who has been a regular visitor to North Korea, noted in a recent report that the aluminum tubes were consistent with those used to build the centrifuges required to enrich uranium.

The North also is believed to have cooperated with Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan, whose underground nuclear network based on uranium technology spread bomb-making know-how across the world.

However, Albright wrote that “a large centrifuge plant likely does not exist; perhaps it never did.”

During a visit this year to Pyongyang ahead of the Feb. 13 agreement, Albright said North Korean officials still denied the enrichment program but said their government has a “will to clear this issue up” and would respond to written U.S. evidence.

Albright cautioned that the new agreement’s implementation should not be based on earlier potentially flawed assessments despite the questions that remain unresolved.

The fate of North Korea’s new agreement to disarm could indeed rest on those words uttered back in 2002 _ and how far Pyongyang is willing to go to prove American intelligence is again wrong.

___

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.

Feb. 12, 2007

NKorea nuclear talks hinge on energy aid to pitch-black nation

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

BEIJING (AP) _ The main U.S. nuclear envoy once quipped that not a single light bulb in North Korea had been switched on with power generated by its sole operating atomic reactor.

Yet international talks on shutting down the reactor are hinging on just how much energy aid Pyongyang will get in return for freezing the facility.

North Korea’s power shortages are well-known. The most commonly cited illustration is nighttime satellite photos of the Korean peninsula that show the stark division between nearly pitch-black North Korea and capitalist South Korea that is awash with constellations of glittering lights.

The North is believed able to only generate about half of its total energy needs of 4 million kilowatts, according to South Korean estimates.

But unlike Iran _ the other nuclear crisis facing the world community _ North Korea is not insisting that its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes only.

The North commonly brags of its nuclear “deterrent” in the face of a supposed U.S. threat, and those boasts have grown louder since it conducted its first atomic test explosion in October.

Still, in 1994 when the U.S. and North Korea negotiated an earlier deal to halt the communist nation’s nuclear programs, they agreed on compensation “to offset the energy foregone due to the freeze” of the North’s reactor.

North Korea was to be given 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to power its generators until construction was completed on a pair of light-water nuclear reactors _ a type less suitable for making radioactive material for bombs _ that would be able to generate 2 million kilowatts of power.

The North’s own nuclear facilities were to be dismantled only after the new reactors were completed, originally scheduled for 2003.

The current U.S. administration has been harshly critical of the deal negotiated under then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, which they say gave the North too much for simply freezing its nuclear program. In late 2002, U.S. officials accused the North of a secret uranium enrichment program that they said violated the earlier deal _ sparking the latest nuclear crisis.

The oil shipments dried up and construction of the two new reactors _ already far behind schedule _ was halted. The North kicked out international nuclear inspectors and restarted its old reactor at Yongbyon, north of the capital Pyongyang.

The U.S. returned to diplomacy with the North in 2003, but this time invited other regional partners to the bargaining table _ China, Japan, Russia and South Korea _ claiming that together they would be more effective in making Pyongyang live up to its promises.

But the echoes of 1994 and energy aid are unavoidable in the latest talks.

North Korea refused to commit to disarm until it received assurances in a September 2005 agreement at the six-nation talks that the other countries would discuss “at an appropriate time” giving it a light-water nuclear reactor.

And now again in the latest round of negotiations that began last week, the amount of fuel oil the North will get has become the sole spot of contention before Pyongyang agrees to take its first steps to abandoning its nuclear program.

Ahead of the talks, American experts who visited Pyongyang said they were told by North Korean officials that they want electricity supplies or even more oil than they got in 1994. Some media reports have said the North is demanding many times the previous amount, which other envoys have called excessive.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the main U.S. envoy, has said Washington is “not interested in an energy deal. We’re interested in a denuclearization deal.”

If an agreement is finally reached this week on the first steps toward turning back the clock on North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, the skies over that country could finally burn brighter _ along with the prospects of peace and stability in a region long shadowed by Pyongyang’s potential threat.

___

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.

Feb. 10, 2007

U.S., totalitarian North Korea grapple with internal debates on nuclear disarmament effort

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

BEIJING (AP) _ North Korea is a totalitarian state where the government doesn’t tolerate any public deviation from the official line. Simply mishandling a portrait of leader Kim Jong Il is considered a crime.

That doesn’t mean, however, there is no political debate inside one of the world’s most controlled nations.

As negotiators in Beijing try to persuade the North to take the first steps toward dismantling its nuclear program, the main U.S. envoy alluded to the different factions in the communist nation grappling with the question of whether Pyongyang will give up its most potent weapons without sacrificing the regime’s security.

“Some people in the (North) … understand that these weapons have done more to isolate and endanger and impoverish the DPRK than they will ever do to protect” it, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said Friday, referring to the country by the initials for its official name. “Alas, I don’t think this is a universal view in the DPRK.”

Hill said there was another group that believes nuclear weapons “can create prestige.”

He didn’t name names, but analysts widely believe there are divisions in the North between the military and diplomats _ a tug-of-war that creates a schizophrenic appearance from the outside given the lack of information about internal policy struggles in Pyongyang, where there is no freedom of the press.

The North’s Kim has generally favored the military as part of his proclaimed “Songun,” or “military-first,” policy _ and the troops are regularly trumpeted in state media as the vanguard of its nationalist ideology.

The armed forces have previously quashed diplomatic initiatives such as efforts at creating a detente between North and South Korea. Last year it refused to allow a test run of trains across the heavily fortified border dividing the peninsula because security arrangements hadn’t been made.

In a way, the debate in the North, one of the world’s most isolated societies, isn’t dissimilar to those in the oldest democracy: the United States.

In Washington, neoconservatives have taken a tough line against the North, harshly criticizing a 1994 Clinton-era deal that rewarded North Korea with the construction of nuclear reactors for power to be built while Pyongyang simply froze its atomic program. The deal collapsed in late 2002, sparking the latest nuclear crisis, after Washington alleged North Korea embarked on a secret uranium enrichment program that it has never publicly acknowledged.

The initial rounds of six-nation talks that began in 2003 appeared to be mostly a diplomatic dog-and-pony show, with the previous U.S. envoy James Kelly believed not to have any real authority to negotiate a deal.

Hill took over in 2005 with an apparently larger mandate, as diplomats seemed to gain the upper hand with more support from the White House.

Still, while U.S. diplomats and regional partners were negotiating an agreement in September 2005, when the North pledged in principle to abandon its nuclear bombs, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted a Macau bank where Pyongyang held accounts _ causing the North to boycott the arms talks for more than a year.

North Korea and the United States have apparently set aside that financial dispute in the latest talks, with Hill saying Friday it wasn’t among the remaining obstacles to a new agreement outlining North Korea’s first moves to disarmament.

Whatever deal is reached in Beijing, the key to a lasting solution of the yearslong standoff will remain back in Washington and Pyongyang where the real policy debates happen _ requiring bureaucrats to set aside their old preconceptions and embrace new trust between the longtime foes.

___

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.

Jan. 22, 2007

Rare notes of optimism from envoys at North Korea nuclear talks raise hopes of progress

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ Envoys to the six-party talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament are sounding rare notes of optimism, raising hopes for progress after their expected return to the bargaining table in coming weeks.

The talks could bring the first steps toward turning back the clock on North Korea’s nuclear development since Pyongyang restarted its main nuclear reactor more than four years ago and proved its long-claimed atomic arsenal with its first test explosion in October.

At the last round of the talks in December, the United States and its partners _ China, Japan, Russia and South Korea _ could not even get North Korea to talk about its nuclear program. Instead, the North stuck to its previous demand that Washington desist from a campaign to financially isolate the country for alleged counterfeiting and money laundering.

But there have recently been hints of a positive foundation being laid for future arms talks, even though no date has been set for their resumption. That includes hopeful talk from the North itself, after an unusual series of one-on-one meetings in Berlin last week between the main U.S. and North Korean negotiators.

The North went out of its way Friday to say that a “certain agreement” had been reached at those sessions, sentiment that encouraged other countries involved.

“On the whole, the impression is developing that the North Korean side has interpreted the results of the talks in Berlin with a certain optimism,” Russian nuclear envoy Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov said Monday after meeting over the weekend with North Korean negotiator Kim Kye Gwan, according to a report by Russia’s Interfax news agency.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who represents Washington at the nuclear talks, said Monday in Beijing that there was “a basis for making progress” when the six-nation nuclear negotiations resume.

Officials have not publicly elaborated on what progress would mean. But a South Korean newspaper report Monday said the North and U.S. had come close to an agreement in Berlin for freezing North Korea’s reactor and allowing the return of international monitoring in exchange for aid for the impoverished country.

Pyongyang kicked out international inspectors at the end of 2002 as it restarted its nuclear reactor. That prompted the latest nuclear crisis, sparked after the U.S. accused the North of a secret uranium enrichment program in violation of an earlier disarmament deal.

Since then the North’s reactor has churned out more plutonium for use in bombs, with experts estimating the country could now have enough radioactive material for as much as about a dozen bombs.

The six-nation talks started in August 2003, and since then only resulted in a single agreement in September 2005 on a statement of principles for the North’s disarmament in exchange for aid and security guarantees. They have yet to be put into practice.

Several envoys have said they expect the nuclear talks to resume before mid-February, when the Lunar New Year is celebrated across Asia.

Actual progress could be added cause for celebration this year on the continent, where North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have rattled nerves and raised prospects for an arms race that could spread across northeast Asia.

But if there are no results this time, the holiday will instead be a time for serious soul-searching about the viability of the process _ possibly leading to new means of pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear arms.

___

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.

Dec. 22, 2006

Failing to get what it wants, blustery North Korea could raise stakes further

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

BEIJING (AP) _ When North Korea doesn’t get what it wants, it always seeks to push the world into action the only way it knows how: raising the stakes, doing everything from launching missiles to its recent nuclear test.

The failure this week of the latest arms talks with the communist nation raises the specter that the North will again be compelled to raise the hairs on the back of the world’s collective neck with another provocation _ possibly setting off another atomic explosion deep beneath the mountains that dominate its rugged landscape.

The main U.S. envoy on Friday warned the North against such a move, as he criticized the country for failing to send negotiators into the nuclear talks with the authority to seek any compromise.

“To explode a nuclear weapon is obviously going to do rather severe damage to the diplomatic process, and I would argue it would bring severe damage to (North Korea) as well,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said.

The negotiations in Beijing that ended Friday after five days appeared doomed from the start, with other delegates saying the North Koreans refused to even talk about nuclear weapons or a September 2005 pledge it made to disarm. Instead, the North fixated on Washington’s blacklisting of a Macau bank, alleging it helped the North pass fake US$100 bills and launder money for its weapons programs.

The U.S. insists the nuclear and financial issues will be resolved separately, although it acknowledges they are both part of a dangerous North Korean pattern of bad behavior.

Washington says it is committed to diplomacy in the so-called six-party talks that include China, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas. Hill has insisted the meetings could even lay the groundwork for a new security cooperation regime in the region.

If that’s true, it’s off to an inauspicious start.

During the three years since the talks began, the North Koreans have twice staged boycotts of more than a year, first because of the alleged U.S. “hostile” attitude and this time because of the financial restrictions.

The latest session _ officially the second part of the fifth round, for those keeping score at home _ showed again that the North Koreans are masters of diversion.

In three years since the talks began, the North hasn’t taken a single step to disarm or to stop churning out weapons-grade plutonium from its main nuclear reactor. Experts say the North likely has enough radioactive material for a half-dozen bombs, but probably can’t place a nuclear warhead on a missile.

Part of the problem has been a difference of opinion in how harsh to treat the North. Countries like China and South Korea have refused to sign on to tough measures called for by the United States and Japan.

Earlier this week, a South Korean lawmaker repeated his claim that movements seen in North Korea indicate a possible further nuclear test.

North Korea’s first nuclear test on Oct. 9 galvanized the world to unite in a chorus of condemnation.

Still, all that indignation failed to help bring any progress, raising questions about what can be achieved at the talks and whether the Washington-led approach will ever yield results _ or simply be the prologue to another nuclear wake-up call.

___

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.

Oct. 31, 2006

NKorea, US both show flexibility to step back from nuclear brink

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ The United States and North Korea took a step back from the nuclear brink after both sides showed they could be willing to bend under the calm guidance of Beijing.

Still, with no date set for arms talks to resume and Washington and Pyongyang profoundly lacking in trust of each other, it remains to be seen whether Tuesday’s agreement for the North to return to negotiations means an end is near for the North’s aspirations of being a nuclear power.

Both the North and the U.S. had previously stuck to ironclad positions that seemed to be totally at odds, leaving little apparent room for a breakthrough. Neither side wanted to cave in, despite calls from other nations at the nuclear talks for flexibility.

In keeping with its typical tactics of escalation and brinksmanship, the North test-fired a barrage of missiles in July and then took the unprecedented step of conducting a nuclear test on Oct. 9 to goad the U.S. to action. Washington was unfazed and responded by backing tough U.N. sanctions.

If the United States agreed to meet the North’s demand for direct talks and other concessions, it would amount to succumbing to nuclear blackmail in the minds of some.

Instead, U.S. officials demanded the North first return to the international nuclear talks _ which also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea _ and said it’d be happy to meet separately just with the North there. That position had softened somewhat just before the North’s Oct. 9 nuclear test, with U.S. officials saying the North simply had to agree to return to the nuclear talks first to get some facetime with the Americans.

But the North insisted on direct talks with the U.S., in keeping with its view that its nuclear dispute is with Washington alone because of the perceived threat to the regime it sees from the American military.

Pyongyang also intensely desires to be seen as on equal footing with its longtime rival Washington, fueled by its nationalistic ideology viewing itself as a great nation and “socialist paradise.”

North Korea had also refused to return to the talks until the U.S. lifted financial restrictions against a Macau bank where it held accounts. That move had been part of a Washington campaign to sever the already isolated communist country from the international financial system for its alleged involvement in counterfeiting and money laundering to sell weapons of mass destruction.

China appears to have held the key in getting both sides to compromise and allow all to save “face.”

In Beijing during the meetings Tuesday that led to the North’s agreement to return to the bargaining table, China first met the U.S. and then all sides had lunch, said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the main U.S. envoy. Then, the U.S. and North Korea met before all three joined again.

Having China in the room for most of the time meant the U.S. technically wasn’t just meeting the North Koreans alone.

For its part, the North stepped back from its earlier demand that the financial restrictions be lifted to return to nuclear talks. But Hill said Washington did agree to discuss the issue at the nuclear talks.

Those negotiations will still be rife with many other pitfalls given disagreements between the two sides.

The North has previously refused to dismantle its nuclear program without getting concessions along the way, while the U.S. has said it wants to see the entire program eliminated before giving Pyongyang any reward.

When the talks do resume, the U.S. and North Korea will have a chance to show just how far their flexibility goes.

___

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.

Oct. 21, 2006

SKorea’s apparent hesitance to pull plug on NKorea projects also has hidden motive

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ South Korea is still sending tourists to a mountain resort in North Korea and maintaining a joint economic zone, despite pressure to cancel the projects after the North’s nuclear test.

The country has its reasons for refusing to shutter key projects that help keep Kim Jong Il’s regime afloat, including competition with China for influence over the impoverished nation.

South Korea and China together account for two-thirds of overseas trade for the communist North, and South Korea hopes to one day reunite the two Koreas.

The U.S. has scoffed at the tourism venture at the North’s majestic Diamond Mountain resort, saying the project simply hands money to the North Korean government. Washington also has questioned labor practices in a joint economic zone where North Korean workers provide cheap labor for South Korean companies.

But Seoul has been reluctant to enrage North Korea as it pursues its policy of reconciliation that has led to unprecedented cooperation between the two countries that share a peninsula.

Totally cutting off the joint projects also would mean Seoul would lose influence in the North, leaving the isolated nation wide open for China _ the North’s No. 1 trade partner and a key source of aid.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said she will not presume to tell South Korea or China how to enforce U.N. sanctions imposed against North Korea after its Oct. 9 underground blast.

But she has called on all nations to cooperate and pointedly noted in a South Korean TV interview Friday that the North “set off a nuclear weapons test right here in South Korea’s backyard.”

“It is important to use whatever leverage a country feels that it can use to get the North Koreans to make the right choice” to rejoin arms talks and disarm, Rice told KBS in Seoul.

South Korea is keen to maintain stability and not let its unpredictable neighbor spoil its hard-won prosperity built from the ruins of the 1950-53 Korean War. Today’s South Korea is a high-technology mecca and cultural trendsetter for Asia, proudly proclaiming itself as “Dynamic Korea” in its main tourism slogan.

The inter-Korean projects are part of Seoul’s strategy to use trade and exchanges to ensure that success is not wiped out by a war or a chaotic collapse of North Korea. The North has needed foreign assistance to feed its 23 million people since the mid-1990s, when its state-run farm system collapsed after the loss of Soviet subsidies.

But in the wake of the North’s first-ever nuclear test, Seoul has faced new calls to cancel the landmark reconciliation projects.

On Tuesday, the U.S. envoy on North Korean human rights, Jay Lefkowitz, warned that unmonitored assistance to the North could prop up a “criminal regime.”

China has made increasing economic inroads in the North in recent years, and South Korea has expressed concern that North Korea could become a de-facto Chinese province.

Chinese goods are the dominant products in what passes for markets in North Korea, and Chinese tourists visit regularly.

A state-supported Chinese think tank has claimed that two ancient Korean kingdoms were actually Chinese, including the Koguryo dynasty that reigned from 37 B.C. to A.D. 668 in an area that stretched from the Korean Peninsula to Manchuria in northeast China. Koguryo is viewed by Koreans as the origin of their nation, and its name forms the root of today’s “Korea.”

China had its fingers in Korean politics going back centuries, under the tributary system in place across east Asia.

The idea that China is staging a shadow campaign to maneuver for position after a North Korean collapse rattles intensely nationalistic Koreans, who have seen their tiny peninsula survive as a nation despite being surrounded by massive powers. They also remember decades of Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, which ended with the heart-rending division of the peninsula.

Despite appearing to vacillate in the face of U.S. demands to comply with U.N. sanctions, Seoul’s reluctance to back out of its projects with North Korea could be a way of signaling strength _ and ensuring that Koreans will have a land to call their own for centuries more.

___

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.


Oct. 17, 2006

US recognition of NKorea nuclear test plays into Pyongyang demand to be treated as equal

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ North Korea has long desired to be recognized as a nuclear power. With a two-sentence statement, the United States has granted that wish, a move that could fundamentally change where the nuclear standoff goes from here.

The office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence on Monday released a brief statement saying that air sample analysis detecting radioactive debris “confirms that North Korea conducted an underground nuclear explosion” on Oct. 9.

Such a statement is expected to be embraced by Pyongyang, and used to further its argument for direct talks with the U.S. on an equal basis as two nuclear powers.

In March 2005, a month after the North first asserted that it had a nuclear weapon, Pyongyang demanded a change in international talks on its nuclear program.

“Now that the (North) has become a full-fledged nuclear weapons state, the six-party talks should be disarmament talks where the participating countries negotiate the issue on an equal footing,” the North’s Foreign Ministry said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il views himself as under direct threat from U.S. nuclear weapons, which back Washington’s desire for regime change in the North. So from his view, the nuclear program is a way to deter that threat and force the U.S. into talks _ because otherwise the United States is likely to ignore the North altogether.

While U.S. officials claim they aren’t preparing to invade, they have taken other steps to isolate North Korea, including severing it from the international financial system. That move is believed to affect Kim particularly hard, as it angers the elites that keep him in power, which could lead to him being ousted, and possibly even killed.

So the North has consistently pressed for direct talks with the U.S. on those financial sanctions and refused to attend the six-nation arms talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, until they are lifted.

Now, the North has a new arrow in its quiver: being a confirmed nuclear power recognized as such by the very country whose attention it so desperately craves, the United States.

U.S. President George W. Bush, however, has consistently refused to talk directly to the North, insisting that the issue is a regional concern and seeking to enlist other countries to put pressure on Pyongyang.

That hasn’t really worked, because of divisions between those supposedly allied countries themselves in how to deal with the North.

China and South Korea, which both could be most affected by a North Korean collapse, have been reluctant to push too hard. There are signs that could be changing and the noose could be tightening on the North, with China beginning some inspections on its border of cargo to prevent possible proliferation of weapons.

However, South Korea has said it will maintain key economic projects with the North, and the current Seoul regime has been reluctant to press Pyongyang for fear of rattling its own economy.

Without those countries fully on board, a solution to the standoff won’t be easy.

The U.S. could seek a direct solution with the North by entering bilateral talks _ now that Washington itself has bolstered the justification for doing so by its confirmation that the North is a nuclear state.

However, that possibility remains remote, as then Bush would appear weak and look like he caved in under the North’s nuclear pressure.

Arriving in Seoul on Tuesday, the main U.S. nuclear envoy indicated Washington would not change its position on direct talks, despite having recognized the nuclear test as genuine.

“This does not change our view of what we have to do, which is to work very hard with our partners and allies to implement the U.N. Security Council resolution,” Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said.

Without a change in the U.S. stance, the game of brinksmanship is likely to continue _ with Bush’s desire for regime change running against Kim’s hopes of hanging on to power.

Both are playing to win. But for Kim, the stakes are higher: His very life may depend on it.

___

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in South Korea for The Associated Press.

Oct. 16, 2006

Could the North’s recent provocations be a call for help from Kim Jong Il?

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ North Korea is struggling to survive with a stagnant economy and aftereffects from years of famine, facing yet another harsh winter following summer floods that may have killed hundreds.

Could North Korean leader Kim Jong Il be using the provocation of a nuclear test simply as a bargaining chip to get the aid he needs to placate his people and stay in power? Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test, labeled by the world as a provocation, could actually be a desperate cry for help.

Recent moves by Kim that have drawn world attention _ missile launches in July as well as the reported nuclear test _ may have been carefully calculated to ignite a crisis but stop short of conflict.

Given Kim’s limited options, the provocations may be the only signal Kim is able to send and maintain power, trying to avert a regime change that also would have dangerous and unpredictable fallout for the world.

The problem now is how North Korea can return to talks after the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously on Saturday to impose punishing sanctions on Pyongyang without Kim losing “face.”

North Korea has suffered deeply in its isolation for decades as one of the globe’s No. 1 bad guys.

Its economy is in shambles, and as many as 2 million people may have died from famine in the 1990s. Winter is coming soon, and the country also was swept by devastating floods in mid-July that killed hundreds, although the real death toll and damage likely will never be known.

Recently, Washington has sought to sever the country from the limited access it does have to the outside world through the international financial system.

It’s not really known how that has affected the country, but experts believe the North’s insistence on calling for the campaign to be stopped shows it could be having a deep effect. The measures also are believed to most affect the elites around Kim who can make or break him.

If Kim returns to talks without getting what he wants by simply caving in, he will be perceived as weak by the generals who are his top advisers, a concern aggravated by the Asian focus on never losing “face.” He can’t publicly express his desire for engagement and U.S. protection to ensure he isn’t overthrown, because that would acknowledge that risk exists.

Looking closely at some of the recent actions could indicate what Kim really wants, and how he’s trying to push others into engagement through the only means he can muster _ while also offering them a way to maintain their own “face.”

The North launched seven missiles in July, and all crashed harmlessly into waters off the country’s eastern shore.

The barrage included a new rocket design known to the outside world as the Taepodong-2, which experts believe could reach parts of the United States. That rocket appears to have failed shortly after takeoff, drawing mockery from the U.S. and others.

However, why was the North able to send a rocket further in 1998? That year, the North sent a missile flying over Japan, drawing worldwide alarm. There’s no reason to assume the North has lost the ability to do so today.

The last launch over Japan was a deep shock to that nation, and Kim knows that no Japanese regime would be able to tolerate such a move again.

The nuclear test also may have been designed to provide a way for all sides to maintain “face” and come back to talk.

The North said immediately when it conducted the test that no radioactivity leaked from the site. Experts believe the explosion was relatively small _ far less than even the first atomic bombs used by the U.S. against Japan in World War II.

Although anonymous U.S. officials have said they detected radiation after the reported nuclear blast, no country has come out with a firm affirmation the test was genuine except Russia.

Kim knows the U.S. has said it can’t accept a nuclear North Korea, and that consideration would be something he could take into account when planning the test.

Before the reported nuclear test, analysts had called it one of Kim’s last cards, with perhaps his only further options being to threaten an attack or to sell nuclear weapons. But Kim can’t make those threats unless he can deliver them or again he’d appear weak, and both are red lines the U.S. can’t allow him to cross.

Has Kim played his last card?

___

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Seoul, South Korea for The Associated Press.

Oct. 14, 2006

North Korean rejection of UN resolution echoes country’s long-held positions

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ North Korea’s immediate rejection of a U.N. resolution sanctioning the communist nation for its reported nuclear test was a repetition of the North’s well-worn rhetoric, and a reiteration of past empty threats that it would consider sanctions to be a declaration of war.

The U.N. Security Council’s unanimous resolution would be expected to be criticized loudly by the North, which deeply resents the outside world trying to force it do something without giving anything in return _ something that runs counter to the North’s primary ideology of “juche,” or self-reliance.

Bending to others’ will also would make North Korean leader Kim Jong Il appear weak, something he can’t do to maintain his grip on power without losing face.

In North Korea’s view, the biggest source of outside pressure is the United States, which the North knows would like to see regime change despite Washington’s public insistence it has no intention to invade.

The U.S. has refused to back down from a campaign to sever North Korea from the international financial system, the North’s key demand before it returns to international nuclear talks. That move is believed to possibly have had a strong effect on the North’s elites, putting even greater pressure on Kim from those closest to him who could be the determiners of his fate.

The North’s claimed nuclear test “was entirely attributable to the United States’ nuclear threat, sanctions and pressure,” North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador Pak Gil Yon said in response to the resolution’s passage Saturday in New York.

The North also asked Saturday why there was no mention of concern about the U.S. push and military presence in the region that is targeted at deterring North Korea.

From the North’s view, the nuclear program is simply a way to stave off a U.S. offensive, and a bargaining chip to give it leverage to get what it really wants: security guarantees for the regime.

Pak said the North has repeatedly maintained “it would feel no need to possess even a single nuke when it is no longer exposed to the United States’ threat, after it has dropped its hostile policy towards the (North), and confidences have been built between the two countries.”

The North knows it cannot ever launch a nuclear attack or proliferate atomic weapons or risk an attack against it _ and expressly said it wouldn’t do either of those things when it announced plans for the test on Oct. 3.

North Korea also repeated at the same time its will for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and hopes for a world free of atomic weapons.

The North’s ambassador echoed that Saturday, and repeated the country’s earlier invocation of the name of Kim Il Sung _ the nation’s founding ruler who is treated as a virtual god under the quasi-state religion that forms the foundation of the North Korean system, and who even in death maintains the title of president.

“The denuclearization of the entire peninsula was President Kim Il Sung’s last instruction and an ultimate goal of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Pak said, using the country’s formal name.

Although the North’s long-standing position is that sanctions are tantamount to a declaration of war, it’s essentially empty rhetoric. The North cannot ever launch an attack _ conventional or nuclear _ because it knows that would mean the end of its way of life and certain loss to the allied forces arrayed against it.

But the resolution itself has given the North a way not to appear weak on that point. At the urging of China and Russia, the resolution is not backed by threat of military force _ meaning the North can claim that they therefore are not the kind of sanctions that would prod it to lash out with a military option of its own.

Still, North Korea isn’t just going to sit back and do nothing. Pak said in his response that the North would “continue to take physical countermeasures” in the face of U.S. pressure. The North tends to do what it says it will do, meaning another claimed nuclear explosion or rocket launch could be likely.

___

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.

Oct. 13, 2006

Shrimp between whales: North Korea plays big neighbors off each other

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ North Korea has always relied on the favors of its two great neighbors, leveraging China and Russia against each other to get what it needs to survive _ like “a shrimp crushed between whales” in a commonly cited Korean proverb.

This week, the balance may have tipped ever so slightly toward Russia, the only country to proclaim the North genuinely set off a nuclear test. The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed Friday that Moscow’s nuclear envoy was in Pyongyang, the first known foreign diplomat to visit North Korea since it reported the explosion.

“The older Kim used to play the Soviet Union and China off each other all the time. It’s become a habit for them,” said Cui Yingjiu, a retired North Korea watcher and a former classmate of Kim Jong Il in the 1960s in Pyongyang, speaking of the North’s founding president, Kim Il Sung.

Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea and professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University, said relations between Moscow and Pyongyang _ which gets scant actual support in tangibles such as money or aid _ can be characterized as what he calls a “broad smile” policy.

“You don’t do anything of substance, but you smile as broad as you can,” he said. “I don’t think either side has much illusions about each other.”

North Korea was created by Soviet design as a communist beachhead in Asia after World War II led to the liberation of the Korean Peninsula from Japanese colonial rule. For many decades, Moscow gave aid and helped the North build its industry, even laying the groundwork for the North’s nuclear program.

After the 1991 Soviet collapse, the balance switched to China. Beijing gave aid and affirmation to the regime, helping it recover from a famine that is believed to have killed as many as 2 million people because of natural disasters and mismanagement _ and the loss of Soviet support.

Still, that does not mean North Korea and China are in a healthy relationship.

The North could make an attractive addition to Beijing’s vast territory and offer access to sea ports. Recent studies by a state-supported Chinese institute claiming that two ancient Korean kingdoms were actually Chinese have aroused loud concern from South Korea that the work might affect future borders. South Koreans have also expressed concern that Beijing’s growing economic influence in the North has made the country a de facto economic part of China.

China has been publicly critical of North Korea since Monday’s announced test, using wording much harsher than its usual bland verbiage.

Russia, on the other hand, has given a cautious measure of affirmation, with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov saying Moscow had “no doubts” the test was nuclear. Moscow was reportedly informed two hours ahead of the detonation.

Since the test, Moscow has announced the delivery of aid to North Korea through the U.N. World Food Program.

“We should ignore the political background,” Yuri Brazhnikov, head of the international department of the Emergency Situations Ministry, told Russia’s RIA-Novosti news agency. “These are targeted food supplies to those who really need help.”

Lankov, the analyst, noted that aid is required to be given under Russia’s obligations to international organizations and said Moscow chose the North for its own political benefit rather shipping it to a place where it has fewer interests, like Africa.

“The Russians do not spend a single kopek on the North Koreans,” he said.

In the end, Kim Jong Il is really seeking another whale as an ally: the United States. Pyongyang has repeatedly asked for direct talks and security guarantees from Washington, and agreed in 1994 with the U.S. to halt nuclear weapons development in exchange for aid and eventual diplomatic recognition.

But U.S. officials say the North admitted in late 2002 that it secretly developed a uranium program _ apparently as an insurance policy in case Washington changed its mind. Although the secret program did not technically violate the 1994 deal, it went against its intended spirit and earlier accords on keeping the peninsula free of nuclear weapons.

President Bush has cited that betrayal in refusing direct talks with Pyongyang, leaving the North to continue its precarious balancing act.

___

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.

Oct. 5, 2006

North Korean nuclear test would separate reality from rhetoric

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ North Korea has boasted it has nuclear weapons, but actually detonating an atomic blast deep beneath the mountain ranges that dominate the rugged country would finally separate the reality from the rhetoric.

The timing of a test would likely aim to coincide with a significant anniversary in the country, many of which revolve around the communist party and cult of personality surrounding leader Kim Jong Il and his late father Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder.

The first chance is this Sunday, marking the ninth year since Kim Jong Il assumed the top job of the Workers Party of Korea.

A U.S. military plane capable of detecting radiation took off from southern Japan on Thursday, Japanese media reported. The mission is believed to be part of American monitoring efforts two days after North Korea threatened to conduct a nuclear test to prove it is a nuclear power.

In the event of a test, North Korea remains so isolated already from the world that there is little most countries could do to punish it diplomatically. That is why tough words of warning this week from China and South Korea _ the North’s top two trade partners and sources of aid _ could be the strongest discouragement to Pyongyang.

Military action by the U.S. or other countries is highly unlikely, not just because the American military is already overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan. The North has one of the world’s largest armies, a force of more than 1 million, and immense conventional firepower aimed at the neighboring South and its nearby capital, Seoul, would immediately cause massive civilian deaths.

Experts believe North Korea likely is able to build at least a basic type of atomic weapon _ but probably not something small and light enough to mount on a long-range missile that could strike the U.S.

There has also already been alleged satellite evidence in the past that the North has experimented with the high explosives that are required to trigger critical mass in a nuclear bomb.

The North’s production of the radioactive material required for a bomb is indeed real and has been previously confirmed by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since the country withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003 and kicked out inspectors, it has restarted its main nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, north of the capital, Pyongyang, to produce yet more plutonium.

A report in June from the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said the North could have enough plutonium for between four and 13 bombs.

The world was put on renewed alert this week after Pyongyang said it would perform a nuclear test, claiming it needed to do so for “scientific research” to develop its deterrent against any U.S. invasion. U.S. and South Korean officials have said the North in theory is able to conduct a nuclear test at any time.

The country is well-versed in digging _ believed to have carved out dozens of secret facilities along with tunnels to infiltrate rival South Korea _ and would be able to create the necessary underground chamber for a nuclear test. The likely location for a test has been fingered as somewhere in the northeast of the country, near the base for its missile testing facilities.

Already, South Korea has put its military on alert and in August stationed soldiers at a seismic monitoring station to watch for a test. Scientists there are looking for two signs of a test: ultra-low-frequency sound from a blast and seismic tremors.

The sound would give the most immediate indication of a test, but might not be detected if the underground site is well-sealed. Tremors would be less conclusive because of the test site’s distance from the border, and would take experts a few hours of study to say whether a nuclear test had occurred.

U.S. spy satellites are maintaining their focus on the North, although South Korea’s defense minister has acknowledged underground activity would be difficult to detect.

Actually performing a test would involve careful political consideration by the North.

The country has displayed a talent for insuring survival of its regime, outlasting its one-time Soviet benefactor and standing up to the United States. The fact that the North announced plans for a test suggests it is again deploying its well-known tactic of raising the stakes in negotiations to win concessions.

The North’s loudest complaints lately have been over Washington’s campaign to sever the Pyongyang regime from the international financial system because of its alleged involvement in counterfeiting U.S. currency and money laundering to proliferate weapons of mass destruction. North Korea has said it won’t return to international nuclear talks until the U.S. removes from a blacklist a bank where it held accounts.

___

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.


September 18, 2006

Year after ‘breakthrough’ on North Korea nuclear crisis, resolution as distant as ever

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ North Korea agreed a year ago to abandon its nuclear weapons in an accord hailed as a ray of hope that could change the face of Asia, leading eventually to the communist nation shedding its pariah status as one of last Cold War outposts and winning U.S. diplomatic recognition.

One year later, that goal remains as far away as ever _ or perhaps even more distant. The North refuses to attend any further arms negotiations in anger over U.S. financial restrictions. The country test-fired a barrage of missiles in early July, drawing a unanimous U.N. Security Council rebuke, and is possibly preparing to prove it has atomic weapons by testing a bomb.

In response to the missile tests, the U.S. and Japan are moving to enforce new sanctions, which are unlikely to have any effect on the closed North Korean economy but would further irritate the regime in Pyongyang nonetheless.

And relations between key allies South Korea and the U.S. have become increasingly strained over whether to engage or isolate the North.

Any optimism that the Sept. 19, 2005 agreement would ever amount to much faded quickly.

The next day, North Korea demanded it be given a nuclear reactor to generate power. The deal included a provision that the other five countries at the so-called six-party talks _ China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. _ would consider providing a reactor at an “appropriate time.” But Washington insisted that would occur only after the North kept its pledge to dismantle its nuclear program.

Rebuffed in its reactor demand, North Korea seized on another reason to delay putting the arms agreement in motion: expressing anger against the U.S. blacklisting a Macau bank where the regime has accounts. The move against Banco Delta Asia, announced days before the Sept. 19 agreement, led the bank to freeze the North’s accounts to try and get back into Washington’s good graces.

Washington has said the financial moves are unrelated to the nuclear impasse, and it has since broadened its campaign to sever North Korea’s access to the international financial system _ saying Pyongyang is complicit in counterfeiting U.S. currency and laundering money to sell weapons of mass destruction, such as missiles.

The six-party countries met once since the September agreement, in November 2005, but made no progress and didn’t schedule another session.

“One year for not having substantive discussions is a very sad anniversary,” the main U.S. nuclear envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said last week in Seoul.

The North has insisted it needs nuclear weapons for self-defense against a possible U.S. invasion, arguing steps such as the financial restrictions are proof of a thinly veiled American dream to achieve regime change in Pyongyang.

The U.S. denies any intention to invade, and any military resolution to the standoff seems untenable as it could mean hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths just in the South Korean capital, Seoul _ well in range of North Korea’s conventional artillery.

The North’s No. 2 leader, Kim Yong Nam, said over the weekend at the Nonaligned Movement summit in Cuba that the nuclear issue could be resolved only if Washington changed its “hostile policy” _ a common refrain in North Korean statements.

Lately, concerns have grown that the North could be seeking to escalate the situation again by conducting a nuclear test, possibly to get the U.S. to back down.

However, an underground nuclear explosion likely won’t shake other countries’ convictions _ with the U.S. becoming even less willing to offer the North a face-saving way to return to talks, said Peter Beck, head of the Seoul office of the International Crisis Group think tank.

“The six-party talks are certainly near death,” Beck said. “Even restarting the talks would be an exercise in getting frequent flier miles, given that neither Washington nor Pyongyang is showing any signs of flexibility.”

With the other countries at the arms talks remaining split, especially Seoul and Washington, the North hasn’t faced any serious pressure to disarm. China, the North’s main benefactor, appears reluctant to push its communist neighbor.

It may indeed take a regime change for any movement in the crisis _ whether that happens in North Korea, the White House or in South Korea. With the South’s left-leaning government facing slumping popularity, a new conservative leadership after national elections in December 2007 could be a turning point.

Meanwhile, the North’s main nuclear reactor remains fully functional since the country withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in early 2003, churning out more plutonium for use in bombs.

___

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Seoul for The Associated Press.

Feb. 11, 2005

North Korean nuclear announcement typical of bluff & bluster tactics by isolated country, experts say

An AP News Analysis

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ Bluffs and bluster, then capitulation and compromise. North Korea has decades of experience dancing a diplomatic tango with its allies and enemies to get what it wants _ and leaving the rest of the world guessing as to the real intent of the isolated communist regime.

North Korea played one of its biggest cards yet Thursday when it boldly stated it had nuclear weapons to deter a U.S. invasion, and was staying away from international talks aimed at convincing it to give up its atomic bombs.

Still, experts said the move should be read as a negotiating tactic typical of the North’s style and its capricious leader, Kim Jong Il.

“Until the ultimate point they maintain their stubborn posture, but in the end they know when to bend their position in order not to break up the entire process,” said Park Joun-young, a political science professor at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul.

“The North’s move appears to be aimed at improving its negotiating power,” Vice Foreign Minister Lee Tae-shik said in a briefing to ruling Uri party officials, according to a party statement.

It’s a pattern that’s been seen repeatedly in the past.

The North stoked world fears when it threatened to pull out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in the early 1990s, then backed down after signing a 1994 deal with Washington to receive energy aid. In 2003, the North actually did withdraw from the treaty in the wake of U.S. revelations alleging North Korean officials admitted to a secret uranium enrichment program. Since then, the North has publicly denied such a project.

Later in 2003, North Korea agreed to enter into nuclear talks with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Three rounds of discussions produced no breakthroughs.

In its dramatic announcement Thursday, the North said it would indefinitely suspend its participation in the talks, and that it would “bolster its nuclear weapons arsenal in order to protect the ideology, system, freedom and democracy chosen by its people.”

“North Korea has shown similar attitudes in times of crucial negotiations,” South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Washington, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. “We need to calmly analyze the situation.”

The North recently upped its rhetoric in its state-run media, which was already filled with a steady dose of anti-U.S. diatribes and warnings of a potential naval clash with South Korea because Seoul was allegedly sending its warships across a disputed sea border.

But at the same time, the North, which relies on foreign handouts to feed its people, asked the South for 551,155 tons of chemical fertilizer as part of an annual aid package _ the largest amount it has ever requested to bolster its poor harvests.

“This is pretty much standard behavior for them,” said Michael Breen, author of a biography on the North Korean leader. He predicted the North’s recalcitrance could last through all four years of President Bush’s second term. “Until Kim Jong Il has gone, it’ll just be more of the same.”

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Friday that North Korea’s statement had “an element of bluff.”

“I’m sure there’s an element of exaggeration even if (North Korea) does have some nuclear capacity,” he said.

Adding to the confusion, North Korea’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Han Song Ryol, was quoted in South Korea’s Hankyoreh newspaper as saying that a U.S. move to have bilateral talks with Pyongyang would be “a signal that the United States is changing its hostile policy toward us.”

But in a brief interview Friday with Associated Press Television News, Han appeared to backtrack.

“We do not ask for bilateral talks,” he said. “The formality of the dialogue is not essential one. The essential one is the U.S. policy _ whether it try to attack us or not. That is the problem, but not the bilateral or multilateral one. We do not care about the formality.”

There had been hopes things would be better, and some analysts had predicted a new round of six-party talks as soon as this month. Bush, who three years ago labeled North Korea part of the “axis of evil,” avoided any criticism in this month’s State of the Union address as a clear olive branch to Pyongyang.

Peter Beck, Seoul-based director of the North East Asia project for the International Crisis Group think tank, warned the North’s tactics could backfire _ given that Bush’s gesture to soften his tone already went against the views of strong voices in his administration who favor a tough stance.

The United States has consistently said it doesn’t plan to sweeten its offer to Pyongyang, to restore diplomatic and economic links only in exchange for North Korea’s complete and verifiable nuclear disarmament.

“The North Koreans are reluctant to go to the next round because they know the onus is on them to table a counteroffer to the offer the U.S. laid on the table,” said Gary Samore of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“What they successfully do is create a new issue to negotiate over,” Breen said. “Let’s negotiate about us coming to the talks. If you give us concessions, maybe we’ll think about it.”

___

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Seoul, South Korea, for The Associated Press.

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