Americans lower sights on Pyongyang

Posted in Koreas | 01-Dec-06 | Author: Donald Kirk| Source: Asia Times

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and chief negotiator Christopher Hill speaks to journalists upon arrival at Beijing airport November 27, 2006.

SEOUL - Those four tendentious initials, "CVID" appear to have been dropped entirely from the vocabulary of US officials talking about talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons.

They've fallen so precipitously from discussions that almost no one outside the negotiating process remembers what they mean - "complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement" of the whole nuclear program.

The Americans, judging from talks about talks this week in Beijing between US envoy Christopher Hill and his opposite number from North Korea, Kim Gye-gwan, apparently have forgotten all about their once commonplace demand for North Korea not only to give up all its nukes but also to open wide to inspectors tramping around the country to make sure Pyongyang was living up to his promises.

The reason, as was clear from Hill's meetings with Kim, is that Washington knows very well that Pyongyang is not about to abandon its program entirely. By now, the most the Americans seem to expect from six-party talks, if they ever resume, is that North Korea will submit to a "freeze" on development and production of nuclear weapons at its much publicized facility at Yongbyon.

Equally significant, the talks about talks had Hill and Kim yakking away for two entire days, all under the watchful eye of the Chinese envoy, Wu Dawei, playing the role of host, moderator and possibly arbitrator. The United States, it seemed, was ready to drop the pretense of avoiding direct negotiations with North Korea as long as they could place the give-and-take under the increasingly vague umbrella of the six-party process.

Besides giving up insistence on CVID, the Americans also appeared to have forgotten the origin of this phase of the nuclear impasse - the alleged acknowledgement by North Korea in October 2002 of the existence of an entirely separate program for developing warheads with highly enriched uranium at their core.

That program, the Americans charged, had been going on in highly clandestine settings around North Korea even as Pyongyang put on a show of abiding by the 1994 Geneva framework agreement by shutting down the reactor at Yongbyon and opening the place to around-the-clock inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Americans like to say the North Korean nuclear test of October 9 has changed nothing - that, in fact, they still don't recognize North Korea as a nuclear power. Washington, however, appears resigned to accepting the reality that North Korea not only possesses nuclear warheads but is capable of testing them. All Washington is now saying, it seems, is let's deal on the basis of what you've got - as long as you'll again shut down Yongbyon.

No one is saying so publicly, but that much appears to have been the crux of the demand made by Hill in Beijing. The quid pro quo, of course, is that the United States, as North Korea shows signs of imposing a freeze, will put together a massive aid program that exceeds the package agreed on a dozen years ago in Geneva under which South Korea was to bear most of the $5 billion cost of building twin light water nuclear reactors to help fulfill the North's energy needs.

North Korea's response to this proposal remains unclear despite the proud claim by Kim Gye-gwan that Pyongyang was not about to abandon its nuclear program in the face of Hill's oft-stated plea for North Korea to "get out of the business".

The Americans doubted if Kim Gye-gwan had the authority to come to terms on anything without definitive word from North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, presumably masterminding negotiations from Pyongyang.

The United States, said the Americans, would no longer demand that North Korea call a halt to everything before resuming aid. The inference was that the US - in tandem with the other participants in the talks, including China, Japan, Russia and South Korea - might now be willing to go for a program under which aid began arriving in stages timed with signs that North Korea was also shutting down the Yongbyon facility.

But where to begin? One possibility was that Washington might consider resuming shipments of heavy oil, agreed on at Geneva in 1994 and halted in November 2002 after North Korea acknowledged the uranium program. The new Democratic-dominated Congress might be willing to approve the shipments in keeping with the demands of some of its leading members for reconciliation with North Korea through dialogue.

There was, however, another thorny issue to circumvent before North Korea would return to talks - or, having returned, to go beyond rhetoric.

That was the whole issue of BDA - yet another set of initials that has entered the discussion ever since the US Treasury Department a year ago said that Banco Delta Asia in Macau could no longer conduct transactions in the US or with US firms anywhere as long as it served as a conduit for $100 "supernotes" counterfeited in North Korea.

That order undoubtedly has had as much to do with stymieing resumption of the six-party talks, last held in November of last year, as the US demands for North Korea to halt its nuclear program as a precondition for aid.

Hill for months made a show of saying the Treasury Department was solely responsible and the whole issue was separate from that of the nuclear program, but he's assumed to have hinted at some degree of leeway on the topic. BDA, having cut off business with North Korea at the behest of authorities in Macau, might conceivably resume after sifting through all its books and ensuring that North Korea no longer passed off counterfeit notes - or, for that matter, used the bank for the sale of drugs and arms.

For Americans in search of a device for hitting North Korea's ruling elite where it would hurt the most, the Treasury Department order has worked amazingly well. North Korean officials have raised it at every turn. Kim Gye-gwan is assumed to have made it a priority item in his meetings with Hill, who, this time, had to come up with a coherent response for the meeting to get anywhere.

The ploy worked so well that Washington came up with yet another ruse for annoying the North Koreans just as Hill was winding up his talks in Beijing. What could be more fun than to watch Kim Jong-il writhe under a ban on some of the trinkets and toys he loves to bequeath on his underlings?

It was to deprive Kim Jong-il of the means to bestow such gifts as iPods, Rolex watches and expensive liquor that luxury items were included in the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council after North Korea conducted the nuclear test. Washington, hoping to get the rest of the world to enforce the ban, has come up with a detailed list of goodies on which US officials are convinced Kim depends for bolstering his power and prestige.

The announcement of the list, however, appears unlikely to do much more than anger the North Koreans. On a practical level, Kim Jong-il can get all the luxury goods he needs by barter trade across the border with China. The Chinese might appear to go along with the ban but are not likely to infuriate their own wheelers and dealers by halting trucks carrying luxury goods across the Yalu River.

As the talks about talks wound down in Beijing, some observers suggested Washington was adopting a slightly skewed tactic for bringing North Korea to terms. Did the American strategists ever think of offering Kim Jong-il some payoffs of their own for Kim Gye-gwan to take back to Pyongyang?

If the notion of the US bribing the North Koreans with luxury items appeared far-fetched, no one doubted that Washington would eventually have to bite the bullet on a multi-billion program for North Korea if the North were ever to come to terms. Alternatively, of course, the talks, and talks about talks, could dribble on until Kim Jong-il decided he might have to order another nuclear test to get everyone's attention again.

Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.