Dear Dear Leader?

How does one address a letter to the dictator-for-life of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-Il? Would it be a “Dear Jong” letter? Maybe if one comes from Texas, a fine “Howdy, partner” would suffice. Unfortunately, we may not ever know the answer — because George Bush wrote the letter, but has not revealed its contents:

In a rare move, President Bush has sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the North’s official news agency said Thursday without giving further details about the message.
U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill delivered the letter to North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun during his recent trip to Pyongyang, the Korean Central News Agency said.

North Korea has just about met its opening obligations in the agreement to end its nuclear-weapons program. Hill predicted that the Yongbyon shutdown would meet its scheduled target, which will allow the DPRK to start receiving the oil it desperately needs. While questions remain about Pyongyang’s involvement in proliferation — notably Syria, where it seems to have come to a screeching end — the shutdown of the reactor complex marks a success for the diplomatic efforts over the last few years.
A personal communication at this point might help build confidence in the process for Kim. He has demanded normalization of relations between the US and the DPRK for denuclearization, but the US has played coy with that particular carrot. Bush can dangle it again by using personal connections to soften the “axis of evil” label he applied to North Korea. After all, even Ronald Reagan greeted Soviet leaders with warmth, and Nixon shook hands with Mao. A note on White House stationery seems reasonable at this point of the process.

North Korea Progresses On Disablement

The process of disabling North Korea’s nuclear program has gone well thus far, according to the lead American representative on the team. Sung Kim believes that they will completely disable the closed Yongbyon facility by the end of the year, as scheduled:

US experts have made a “good start” to the process of dismantling North Korea’s main nuclear facility, the leader of the US team has said.
Sung Kim praised North Korean officials at the Yongbyon reactor, which produced weapons-grade plutonium, as being “very co-operative”.
Pyongyang agreed to end its nuclear programme in return for diplomatic concessions and economic aid.
US officials say they hope to disable the reactor by the end of the year.

The Yongbyon plant closed when the DPRK agreed to the settlement at the six-nation talks. The disablement process involves the removal and disposal of the fuel rods, of which Yongbyon had 8,000, thus necessitating some time in completion. That will keep the facility off-line for at least a year even if the diplomatic accord reverses itself, but no indications have arisen of any such difficulty.
Of course, recent evidence in Syria indicates that Pyongyang has found another manner in which to profit from its nuclear engineering. The sudden strike by Israel against what appears to be a DPRK-built nuclear facility — and Syria’s curious lack of protest over its destruction — show that the six-nation talks need to go farther to find out where else Kim Jong-Il marketed his wares.
There is the slim possibility that Kim divulged the location of the Syrian facility as a condition of the agreement. The juxtaposition of the six-party agreement and the strike on the facility is intriguing, if not coincidental. The US could have allowed Israel to take the heat publicly while we clucked our tongues from the sideline but knowing exactly what they would do, and why. That could explain Syria’s reluctance to press its case publicly as well, if they knew that Pyongyang had given up all of the information on the site.
Even if the entire incident was coincidental, it certainly underscores the fact that any dealings with North Korea on nuclear proliferation will be temporary at best. That benefit comes directly from the agreement on the denuclearization of North Korea, which if done properly can serve as an example for multilateral pressure on other rogue nations.

North Korea Agrees To US Lead On Nuke Program

Kim Jong-Il has agreed to give a “complete and correct” declaration of all its nuclear programs and will allow the US to take the lead on disabling its Yongbyon reactor. The announcement, announced by representatives of North Korea and China, comes within the six-party framework and adheres to the February 13th agreement. It takes the process much closer to completion, but another issue remains open:

North Korea agreed to provide a “complete and correct declaration” of its nuclear programs and will disable its facilities at its main reactor complex by Dec. 31 under an agreement reached by North Korea and five other countries released Wednesday.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei said as part of the agreement, the U.S. will take the lead in seeing that the facilities are disabled and will fund those initial activities. …
North Korea is required to disable its sole functioning reactor at Yongbyon in exchange for economic aid and political concessions under a February deal reached through the six-party talks. In July, the North closed Yongbyon, as well as other facilities, ahead of their disablement.
Once there is a six-party agreement, Hill said on Tuesday in New York, the U.S. expects the process of disabling the reactor to get under way “in a matter of weeks.” The U.S. wants the dismantling process so thorough that a nuclear facility could not be made operational for at least 12 months.

The deal represents a breakthrough in talks, which have picked up speed in recent weeks. Last month, a meeting between US and DPRK officials resulted in a verbal agreement that Pyongyang would allow Yongbyon to be scuttled in exchange for badly-needed energy and economic aid. The US insisted in working out the details in the six party framework, and the multilateral team hammered out the agreement in detail last week.
American funding for the shutdown presents little problem for the Bush administration. They would gladly pay to shut down Yongbyon and other facilities, unnamed in this report. Had the talks not succeeded, the US might have spent much more money attempting to shut them down clandestinely. A few million dollars to ensure security is a small price to pay, and besides, we can then ensure that the facilities really cannot be reused for a very long time.
One issue remains. The US wants to get the fissile material back from the DPRK, and negotiators expect a tougher time on this point. Analysts estimate that Kim has at least 110 pounds of nuclear material, as well as some nuclear weapons. It’s critical for our security that we ensure no one else gets their hands on any of it — a point driven home by the reported DPRK-Syrian facility that Israel bombed last month. Most critically, they want to make sure none of it is missing, and if it is, who wound up with it.
The DPRK Army may not be forthcoming on this issue. The US and other four nations plan on moving forward with the scuttling of Yonbgyon and other facilities, but they’re holding off on the majority of economic assistance and diplomatic improvement until 2008, when the talks will address this in earnest. If Kim won’t cough up the goods, we may still have a standoff.

The Pyongyang Summit

The leaders of the two Korean states shook hands to the cheers of thousands in Pyongyang today. The historic summit, only the second in a half-century of hostility, hopes to bridge the gulf between Koreans separated by a DMZ, and to staunch the bleeding from the catastrophic economic collapse in the North. Whether it leads to any real progress may have more to do with disarmament talks taking place elsewhere:

As hundreds of thousands of North Koreans cheered and waved pink paper flowers, leaders of the two Koreas shook hands at the start of a summit that is expected to inject large amounts of money from the booming capitalist South into the struggling Stalinist North.
The reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jung Il, dressed in the gray military-style jumpsuit he wears to meet the world’s television cameras, looked dour as he walked with the smiling South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun.
They met on a red carpet in front of a performing arts hall in the North Korean capital Pyongyang, where substantive talks in the three-day summit are expected to start on Wednesday.
The atmospherics of this summit, only the second such meeting in the more than half a century since the North and South fought an all-out war, seemed rather cooler than in the first summit in 2000.

Kim Jong-Il seemed happier at the previous summit, Blaine Harden reports, but there may be a reason for that beyond diplomatic tensions. The South Koreans paid Kim $186 million for that 2000 summit meeting, which caused a political scandal when it came to light in Seoul. This time, the government had to pledge that it would not pay for the summit, which undoubtedly explains Dear Leader’s sour expression, at least in part.
Seoul expects to make some economic deals on this trip that will benefit both countries. They want to create a free-trade zone with Pyongyang, a move that would only benefit the DPRK financially. However, Kim has to worry about the liberating effects of free trade, which relies on at least some capitalist structure. The South will want to compete on an equal basis, which will mean less slave labor. The increased contacts between the two nations will also create a much larger sense of injustice among Kim’s restive population — and it could lead to a huge exodus if the DMZ gets dismantled.
Kim wants a reunification, but on his terms. Roh, weak at home and his party almost certain to lose big in the next elections, wants normalized relations. Both men seek Holy Grails that are not only completely unrealistic but mutually incompatible. The best either can hope to do is exchange some money and have an impact on public opinion in their opponents’ back yards. The real action is taking place in the six-party disarmament talks, where Kim hopes to get the US off of his back for good. Until the nuclear issue gets resolved, this amounts to a side show, and both leaders know it.

That Glow In Pyongyang-Damascus Relations

The Washington Post reports that evidence of a nuclear partnership between North Korea and Syria has received top-level attention in the Bush administration. In what appears to be a reverse of the problems of 9/11, the data has bypassed much of the intelligence bureaucracy and gone straight to the top:

North Korea may be cooperating with Syria on some sort of nuclear facility in Syria, according to new intelligence the United States has gathered over the past six months, sources said. The evidence, said to come primarily from Israel, includes dramatic satellite imagery that led some U.S. officials to believe that the facility could be used to produce material for nuclear weapons.
The new information, particularly images received in the past 30 days, has been restricted to a few senior officials under the instructions of national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, leaving many in the intelligence community unaware of it or uncertain of its significance, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Some cautioned that initial reports of suspicious activity are frequently reevaluated over time and were skeptical that North Korea and Syria, which have cooperated on missile technology, would have a joint venture in the nuclear arena. …
In talks in Beijing in March 2003, a North Korean official pulled aside his American counterpart and threatened to “transfer” nuclear material to other countries. President Bush has said that passing North Korean nuclear technology to other parties would cross the line.

The story began when Syria complained of an Israeli overflight in the north end of their country, later adding that the Israeli jets had “dropped ordnance” on Syrian territory. The Israelis refused to confirm or deny the allegation, a rather significant silence considering the nature of Syria’s claims. Yesterday, word started getting around about a potential “unconventional weapons” site — and oddly, North Korea protested the attack in general terms.
Up to now, Syria has been seen as a low risk for nuclear proliferation. They don’t have a lot of cash for nuclear research, although they do have a small reactor system for that purpose. They also know that the US would find Syria a much easier target than Iran if Bashar Assad decided to indulge in the same kind of brinksmanship as Teheran. The rewards haven’t outweighed the costs, at least not until now.
Kim Jong-Il needs cash badly, and it’s not unthinkable that he would sell his nation’s low-rent experience for some hard currency. Even though the DPRK couldn’t successfully test its own nuclear weapons, the research would still be valuable to another nation looking for a nuclear starter kit. With Israel pressuring Syria from the south and the US to the east in Iraq, Assad may have scrounged up enough money to get Kim to start transferring his program, which is about to come to a close on the Korean peninsula.
An Israeli strike would have ended all of that. The US may be breathing a little easier after what looks like a second Osirak strike by the Israeli military.

North Korea Agrees To End Nuclear Programs

Talks in Geneva between North Korea and the US have produced a breakthrough on nuclear disarmament. Pyongyang has declared that it will end all nuclear-weapons efforts by the end of 2007, agreeing for the first time to account for its complete list of programs:

North Korea agreed in weekend talks with the United States to fully account for and disable its nuclear programs by the end of this year, negotiators said on Sunday.
“We had very good, very substantive talks,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill told reporters. “One thing that we agreed on is that (North Korea) will provide a full declaration of all of their nuclear programs and will disable their nuclear programs by the end of this year, 2007.”
North Korea’s top nuclear envoy said separately his delegation was pleased with the outcome of the talks, held to hasten the end of Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, a target agreed to in principle in 2005 in exchange for diplomatic and economic benefits.
“We agreed about many things,” Kim Kye-gwan, speaking in Korean, told reporters. “We made it clear, we showed clear willingness to declare and dismantle all nuclear facilities.”

Neither side revealed what the DPRK received in return for its capitulation, but some carrots have been long proferred by the other five parties in the talks. Kim Jong-Il has demanded economic assistance and normalization of relations with the US for decades, and certainly would expect to receive both in exchange for shutting down his nukes. That would likely end the war between the two Koreas, which has been ongoing for almost sixty years and only quieted by a truce.
The US and the other nations should ensure that verification is a big part of the agreement. The Bush administration has insisted on better verification regimes than the previous Agreed Framework that allowed Pyongyang to build its nuclear program in secret. That is especially necessary now that the US has apparently agreed to take North Korea off its list of terror sponsoring nations, which will allow the DPRK to start selling its arms openly, and buying even more for themselves.
The DPRK will meet with Japan in a couple of weeks in Mongolia to reach agreement on side issues, especially on the abductions of Japanese nationals over several decades. If that proceeds well, the six-party negotiators will meet once more immediately afterwards to ratify all agreements. If this succeeds, it will increase pressure on the other major known nuclear dabbler, Iran, which just announced an increase of operational centrifuges to 3,000. That can’t be good news for the mullahcracy, who had tried coordination with the DRPK as a means to keep the international pressure split.
A success with North Korea would give Bush some momentum in foreign policy, and a real accomplishment for the last months of his term. Hopefully it will represent a real and peaceful victory for the US and pave the way towards freedom for the people starving on the Korean peninsula.

Shots Across The DMZ

Seoul confirms that the two Korean armies exchanged short bursts of gunshots across the DMZ, one day before disarmament talks expected to set the procedure for permanently disabling the Yongbyon nuclear plant. The exchange could mean that Kim Jong-Il wants a way out of his agreement, or it could have more implications for the role of the DPRK military in the disarmament:

North and South Korea briefly exchanged gunshots on Monday in the first such skirmish on their heavily armed border in just over a year, a military official said.
There were no reports of any casualties.
“A few shots were fired from the North, and a few warning shots were fired (back) from this side,” the official with the office of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff told Reuters.
The shooting came a day before the start of working level talks among regional powers, including the two Koreas, in the South Korean side of the buffer zone that has divided the peninsula for more than half a century.
The talks are part of a wider international effort to persuade North Korea to end its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for aid.

South Korea says it has detected no changes in the readiness posture of the North after the shooting, which means that Kim wasn’t looking to pick a fight. After all, it could have been an accident, or a case of one soldier losing control of himself. This could just be a bad coincidence.
If not, Reuters suggests that the exchange could have been intended to keep the DPRK’s troops focused and disciplined. The agreement to disarm comes as a blow to the North, which had celebrated its nuclear test as a major achievement for the nation. Now that the Kim regime has agreed in principle to abandon the program, morale in the military rank and file could be dangerously low. A non-lethal exchange across the DMZ may give them something on which to focus.
Like everything else involving Kim Jong-Il, it’s mystifying. Will it portend a reversal on the agreement? We should find out tomorrow, but it wouldn’t be the first time Kim staged something like this to give himself an excuse to walk out of the talks.

No SmoKim

Rumors have Kim Jong-Il suffering from serious heart disease and complications of diabetes, and recent pictures indicate some significant weight loss. Patients coping with these illnesses usually get advised to avoid cigarette smoke. And when you’re the Dear Leader of the DPRK, you can clear a lot of air:

In most cities, smoking bans are intended to protect the non-smoking majority from the minority who insist on lighting up.
In Pyongyang, the latest and most unlikely international capital to be subject to a ban, it is the other way round.
The ban is to protect one man from the effects of his puffing compatriots, but since that man is the reclusive North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, it is still likely to be vigorously implemented. …
Sang Jong-min, a former South Korean MP and academic who has visited Pyongyang and monitors developments there, says he was told about the ban by a Chinese diplomat. “Kim’s home, office and all other places he goes to have been designated as non-smoking areas. Even the highest-ranking officials are going outdoors to smoke,” he said.

Even though Kim may run the world’s biggest nanny state, smoking has been one of the few vices allowed by leadership to the people. Estimates of smokers in the DPRK run as high as 40%. Servicing those 9 million smokers is one of the only Western companies to invest in Kim’s dictatorship, British American Tobacco, which produces the cigarettes in the DPRK.
Kim himself used to smoke until his health began to fail. Now that he has ended his own habit, he apparently wants everyone else to smoke outside. Will the new push towards respiratory health kill one of the few industries to actually work inside the DPRK? It’s hard to tell, but if Kim presses the ban, at least the starving millions in his country won’t have to endure the horrors of second-hand smoke.

Kim Shuts Down Yongbyon

North Korea announced that it has closed their nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, an essential step in their nuclear disarmament that many had despaired of Kim Jong-Il ever taking. The closure follows the delivery of over 6,000 tons of fuel oil and the transfer of $25 million in previously frozen funds. The IAEA has sent its inspectors to the plant to verify its closure and to monitor its status:

After four years of off-and-on negotiations, North Korea said it began closing down its main nuclear reactor Saturday, shortly after receiving a first boatload of fuel oil aid.
The closure, if confirmed by U.N. inspectors, would mark the first concrete step in a carefully orchestrated denuclearization schedule that was agreed on in February, with the ultimate goal of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for fuel and other economic aid, and increased diplomatic recognition.
More broadly, it constituted the first on-the-ground accomplishment of six-nation negotiations that have been grinding away with little progress since 2003 under Chinese sponsorship. The talks — including North and South Korea, Russia, Japan, the United States and China — are likely to resume next week in Beijing to emphasize the parties’ resolve to carry out the rest of the February agreement and eventually create a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

If the IAEA confirms the shutdown, it will be the most significant step taken by the DPRK since they admitted to cheating on nuclear-weapons development in 2002. That caused the Bush administration to declare the 1994 Agreed Framework a dead letter and ended direct negotiations between the US and the Kim regime.
Instead, George Bush insisted on multilateral talks, a process which has come under heavy criticism over the last few years, even while the same critics attacked the adminstration for its supposed unilateralism in Iraq and the Middle East. This approach appears to have paid off, however. Bush’s engagement of China, with all of its economic and diplomatic leverage in Pyongyang, forced Kim to take the talks seriously. An angry China would create a disaster for Kim, as his nation already starves and can hardly afford to become even more economically isolated. After testing one nuclear device, apparently to save a little face — it turned out to be mostly a dud — Kim wound up capitulating his nuclear program in the talks.
Still, we’ve been down this road before with Kim. No one expected him to just walk away from his nukes in the same manner Moammar Ghaddafi did in Libya in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s capture. The closure of Yongbyon is very significant in this regard. If Kim wanted to continue manufacturing nukes, he’d need Yongbyon to produce the fissile material. Once that closure becomes permanent, which the IAEA will confirm through the destruction of the plant’s internal facilities, Kim will be out of the nuke manufacturing business — at least for plutonium-based weapons.
In other words, this is a good start, and a rather significant win for the US and the Bush administration. The highly-flawed Agreed Framework has been replaced by a system that requires verification and uses the pressure of China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia to enforce the agreement. If the rest of the process runs as smoothly, we may have defanged the DPRK and might even be on our way to opening up the last of the Stalinist regimes.

North Korea Says It Will Shut Down Reactor

Now that the US has released the $25 million in frozen funds sought by North Korea, the Kim Jong-Il regime will start shutting down its Yongbyon reactor in accordance with the six-party agreement. That process starts next week, when a hastily-arranged conference with the IAEA begins next Tuesday, assuming that the North Koreans throw up no further roadblocks to the process:

North Korea said Monday that its dispute with the United States over $25 million frozen in a bank in Macao had been resolved, and that it would begin to carry out its much-delayed promise to shut down its main nuclear plant.
The first test of the North Korean commitment to stop and seal its main nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, south of Pyongyang, the capital, and an adjacent fuel-reprocessing plant, will come when officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency begin five days of negotiations on Tuesday in North Korea.
The agency, the United Nations’ nuclear monitoring arm, and North Korean officials will discuss a timetable for shutting down the reactor and technical details of monitoring and verification. Ever since the first suspicion of a North Korean nuclear weapons program surfaced in the early 1990s, the agency and North Korea have bickered over how much access the agency should have to nuclear facilities and data in the isolated country.

This could represent a major foreign-policy victory for the Bush administration, if it goes according to plan. Certainly the White House could use some good news, and if it can verifiably end operations at Yongbyon and close out Pyongyang’s plutonium program, it will deserve the credit. They stuck to a multilateral formula that appears to have produced real results with verification, an improvement over previous efforts.
This agreement still leaves questions about North Korea’s reported highly-enriched uranium program, questions which US negotiator Christopher Hill left open last week:

If Hill raised the ticklish issue of North Korea’s highly enriched uranium (HEU) program in any detail, he was not letting on. And if he came up with a proposal for the US simply to buy up North Korea’s nuclear inventory, as widely reported in South Korea, he was not about to confirm or deny anything to that effect.
Hill did, however, appear anxious to convey the impression of having talked about highly enriched uranium without actually using the term. It was, after all, the HEU issue that torpedoed the Geneva agreement of 1994 when his predecessor, James Kelly, alleged after visiting Pyongyang nearly five years ago that a top North Korean had indeed acknowledged the existence of a secret HEU program.
“We did discuss the need to have a comprehensive list of all nuclear programs,” said Hill. For good measure, he added, “And, of course, all means all.”

Did we buy up Kim’s nuclear inventory as part of the deal? That wouldn’t have been a bad idea, as long as we could verify that he didn’t produce any more nuclear material to use in a later extortion scheme. It would have provided Pyongyang with some needed hard currency and perhaps a little face-saving dodge to soothe the humiliation of giving up his nuclear program under pressure from the entire Pacific Rim.
The US sweetened the deal in two subtle ways. First, we sent Hill to North Korea for some direct negotiations, which Kim wanted to establish the DPRK as a significant entity, at least in his own mind. Hill apparently allowed the North Koreans to set the timing and the agenda to show even more deference. Secondly, when we did release the frozen funds, we did so through North Korean bank accounts to establish their bona fides in the international banking system. Both efforts appealed to what seems like the biggest case of an inferiority complex outside of radical Islam.
If these efforts pay off in a denuclearized North Korea, they amount to a cheap price to pay indeed. If they do not, we have not lost much in the transaction, and we can continue to pressure Kim to change, or the DPRK to change leaders.