Reengagement to Stem Nuclear Tsunami in the Korean Peninsula

Optimistically, and after almost a year and a half the U.S. administration of Barack Obama seems to signal its desire to engage North Korea through bilateral talks, that auger well for denuclearization drive in the Korean peninsula. Little wonder now for this new gesture from the U.S. as it had received a very positive note from the Kim Jong-il leadership in North Korea capitalizing on the occasion of New Year in January, 2010. Then the reclusive North Korean leader had mentioned in that New Year Message that its government wanted to end hostile relations with the U.S., world’s only superpower.

Obviously, the failure of Geneva Accord or popularly known as “Agreed Framework” of 1994, a bilateral deal struck between the U.S. and North Korea to dismantle nuclear weapons program in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in exchange for latter’s obtaining international aid and needed energy for its weak economy has brought about a number of unwanted consequences since then.

Fairly speaking both the parties to the above Agreed Framework deserve blame for not meeting the resultant obligations. The nuclear situation in North Korea heavily suspected of developing nuclear weapons clandestinely from the early 1990s got worse after George W. Bush administration succeeded Clinton’s in 2000. The atmosphere for negotiations on the nuclear issue was negatively impacted after G.W. Bush labeled North Korea as an Axis of Evil after 9/11 attacks in America.

As provocation would induce the other party to be more adamant, the North Korean leadership was forced to take a harsh decision to ask the inspectors from International Atomic Energy Agency to leave the country who had been monitoring the nuclear reactors following the 1994 agreement concerning dismantlement of nuclear weapons program in North Korea. The desperation of North Koreans amidst international isolation imposed on them combined with stringent economic sanctions shot up leading them to announce their intention to withdraw from the membership of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

In the wake of such alarming scenario in the DPRK, whose leadership showed defiance towards international community by abandoning the legal framework of prohibiting the manufacturing of nuclear weapons (NPT) in 2003, the U.S., Russia, South Korea, North Korea, China and Japan constituted a disarmament body known as Six-Party to facilitate talks on denuclearization in the Korean peninsula. The main objective of this group involving the major stake holders in nuclear weapons program in North Korea was to coax the DPRK to abandon producing atomic bombs by shutting down plutonium reprocessing reactors and giving up uranium enrichment facilities.

The U.S. has been insisting that North Korea should commit first to denuclearization and the promises made in the 2005 Six-Party agreement to give up all of its nuclear program while ignoring the reality that North Korea prefers direct talks to those that engage the other members of Six-Party. But recent events suggest that Obama administration is gradually realizing the need for engaging North Korea bilaterally to persuade it to come back to Six-Party negotiations that have stalled since April 2009 when the DPRK launched a missile test.

Following the above missile test the UN Security Council imposed sanctions against North Korea, which ironically provoked the same to go for second nuclear test on 25 May, 2009. The first nuclear device was exploded in 2006. This nuclear explosion also invited further UN action through Security Council resolution 1874 which blasted DPRK’s test as an violation of earlier council resolutions 1695 and 1718. This cycle of action and counter action by the international community and North Korea has truly exposed the futility of sanctions.

Washington’s recent steps indicate that it is edging closer to the position of North Korea to revive face to face talks to build confidence before moving back to Six-Party negotiations. The most notable among such moves are the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s invitation to North Korean Vice Minister Kim Kaye-gwan for official bilateral talks in New York in August, disaster assistance delivered to Pyongyang in the aftermath of last September flooding and reengaging with the North Korean Army concerning the return of Prisoners of War/Missing In Action remains from the Korean War (1950-53).

Perhaps the U.S. administration is providing these positive signals of reengaging North Korea considering the fact that two decades of isolation and sanctions have done little to cause DPRK’s collapse, of for that matter stop its nuclear arming. This observation is rightly echoed by Leon V. Sigal, who, writing an essay in the September-October, 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs entitled “Negotiation can work with North Korea”, argues that there is hardly any reason for America to shrink from testing North Korea’s intentions face to face.

The history of birth of North Korea in the wake of World War II and subsequent enmity with the U.S. as seen in 1950-53 Korean War, which ended by signing an Armistice Agreement instead of any peace treaty reveal that roots of hostility have not been overcome as yet. Moreover, the recent ouster of Qaddafi regime in the name of humanitarian intervention has reinforced the added deterring value of nuclear weapons for the internationally-isolated North Koreans, who would be least inclined to dismantle their nuclear weapons under the present circumstances. The DPRK leadership still believes that Qaddafi would have survived the Arab turmoil exploited by U.S., UK and France, had it not abandoned the nuclear weapons program under the illusion of improving relations with the West.

Let us not forget that North Korea speeded up its nuclearization drive only after Clinton administration  declined to live up its promises of ensuring supply of international assistance and required fuel for running North Korean economy.

Therefore, Leon V. Sigal further contends that it is unfair to overlook North Korea’s role in adhering to the Six-Party Accord reached in February, 2007 by shutting down its reactor with plutonium reprocessing facility at Yongbyong. According to him the long-term goal should be to exploit Pyongyong’s energy needs and chart a path to peace treaty. It is appropriate for both U.S. and North Korea to recall their Joint Communique of 12 October, 2000 that said ”neither government would have hostile intent toward the other”. It also confirmed “the commitment of both governments to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity”.

The stalled negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear program followed by the country’s growing international isolation also could not resume as the government of Lee Myung-bak in South Korea came to power in 2008 with determination to deal with the northern neighbor showing least flexibility. The inter-Korean relations were so strained that in 2010 two events took place that set alarm bells around the region. In March that year North Korea torpedoed South Korean naval vessel killing 45 sailors and in November, 2010 there was military attack launched on Island ruled by South Korea. Further military escalation would have been catastrophic considering decade-long hostility between the two Koreas.

The destabilization in the Korean peninsula would directly impact Nepal’s remittance-dominated economy because for its workers South Korea has become a favored labor destination since the signing of Nepal-South Korea Agreement under Employment Permit Scheme. Thousands of Nepalese workers have been provided employment in South Korea and the quota granted from the host country has been increasing in the most recent years. In view of this reality too the nuclear standoff in the Korean peninsula requires to be resolved sooner rather later, which would further create congenial atmosphere to establish peace in the volatile region of the world.

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