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US Policy on N Korea in Passive Response Stage
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By Wang Fan


Last week, American, Russian and Chinese experts inspected "all sites they wished to" at the Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea and discussed in detail how North Korea might go a step further to disable the nuclear facility.


What the inspectors achieved provided what top American nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill called "enough so that we believe there's a basis for sitting down" for another round of the six-party talks.


All the above seemed to be a natural development of a series of concrete progress, including the bilateral talks in Geneva early this month between the US and North Korea as both parties touched upon more specific topics.


For example, North Korea promised to declare its nuclear plan completely and Hill, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, even disclosed a detailed timetable, on the assumption North Korea had agreed to disclose its nuclear plan by the end of this year.


They also made headway in deciding the rules and format of policy interaction between the two countries.


One can see that the policies of the US toward North Korea have become more detailed, some of which are down to steps of implementation. Its policy to offer incentives to North Korea is also better defined than before, which could be described as an incentive mechanism easier to execute than ever:


If North Korea abandons its nuclear weapons program, the US has a series of tangible rewards for it at specific stages of the process, including removing it from the list of countries supporting terrorism, lifting the Trading with the Enemy Act against it and coexistence of states and normalization of bilateral ties, which North Korea cares most about.


With a timetable for declaration and nuclear disablement ready, Hill now has new expectations for the next round of the six-party talks and believes it "has increased the chance of success in the next round of the talks".


Despite the progress, a number of lingering questions during discussions by working groups on future six-party talks and normalization of US-North Korea relations demand our attention.


One: Will the US really remove North Korea from its terrorism supporter list?


Hill admitted the North Korea representative reiterated numerous times that removing his country from the "black list" is a key demand, because remaining on the list means it is impossible to receive any material or technology aid that could be used for military purposes from the US or loans from financial institutions such as the World Bank.


Only after being removed from the "black list" can North Korea expect itself to be freed from restrictions by the war-oriented Trading with the Enemy Act, though the Act took effect back in 1950.


However, the US is very unlikely to make dramatic changes in its counter-terrorism policies. People who know about the post-9/11 counter-terrorism policies are well aware the US once set the DPRK as a target to wipe out for good in the third phase of its war on terror.


Washington has always been worried about the proliferation of North Korea's nuclear or other technologies and, when it learned North Korea might cooperate with Pakistan on nuclear technology, the US saw it as an extremely grave development. It has become even more concerned about this issue since 9/11.


That is why it will not be easy for the US to remove North Korea from the "black list" and the move must be tied to US demands for North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions. The hawkish pressure groups inside the US are watching this development closely as well and have already criticized Hill for making too many concessions, saying the lifting of trade sanctions against North Korea qualified as a step of real significance.


Take an analytical look at the policies of the US toward North Korea in recent months and one will see Washington does not want to support a nuclear-capable North Korea even if it is pro-US. A number of US officials involved in this have already made it quite clear.


The voices of protest against the recent US double-standard plan to relax dealings with India over the latter's nuclear development make Washington even more cautious about any leniency toward North Korea.


Apparently, the removal of North Korea from the US "black list" comes with an important precondition, which is North Korea abandons its nuclear plan, because Washington does not think North Korea can make any demand or receive any compensation as a nuclear state.


In other words, the US still sees North Korea as a nuclear state and therefore cannot rule out it is still a country that supports terrorism. It is clear the US has not changed its stand on the issue of North Korea giving up its nuclear development and will not trade this principle for anything less.


Two: Will the US continue to rely on the six-party talks framework? The answer is definitely yes.


First of all, the US-North Korea bilateral talks were held within the framework of the six-party talks. They were not a separate process independent of the talks mechanism but part of the job of the working groups on normalization of US-North Korea ties. Technically the two countries should let the six-party mechanism review the results of their bilateral talks.


Besides, Japan, as one of the six parties, also hopes to make North Korea's denuclearization a precondition for normalizing their bilateral relations.


Hill has refused to disclose on what condition the US Congress would approve the normalization of US-North Korea relations, but promised the US would only take the step when its allies such as Japan are satisfied. That means the US, together with Japan in their double capacities as members of the six-party talks and as allies, will tend to its special ties with Japan as allies to a certain extent.


Secondly, the process of resolving the Korean nuclear issue has reached one of those moments when all parties involved must work together with one will and in perfect coordination to solve any problem.


If any of the players breaches the agreement and breaks its own promise or violates the rule of cooperation, it will be extremely difficult to solve the problem completely. Neither the US nor North Korea can break away from the restrictive and monitoring mechanism of the six-party talks at the moment. They still rely on and trust the mechanism. More importantly, the US still has expectations for the Northeast Asia security mechanism under the framework and therefore is not ready to sabotage its operation just yet.


Three: Future policy bearing of the US in six-party talks. Through the recent Geneva talks we saw a sign: differences remain between the US and North Korea, each with its own publicly expressed denial. North Korea said the US had agreed to remove it from the list of countries that support terrorism, which Washington has denied; Hill said North Korea had agreed to publish a detailed account of its nuclear program by the end of the year, but the latter has yet to commit openly to a timetable.


North Korea said on September 2 it was hugely upset by the recent joint military exercise by the US and South Korea forces. The US and North Korea still have between them key differences in the definition of denuclearization and nuclear plan disclosure.


That is why the US hopes to see faster denuclearization of North Korea first. On August 29, Hill said the six-party talks could reach an agreement in September, asking North Korea to give up its nuclear project by year's end.


A key objective of the US in the immediate future is to spell out what it expects to see on the latter's timetable at the six-party talks. At the same time, it will ask North Korea to not only disclose its nuclear plan on schedule but also clarify the issue of deactivating all nuclear facilities. One of the key measures by the US is to carry out the so-called calcification policy against North Korea to steadily and gradually change the latter's policies.


The aim is to push Pyongyang forward rather than backward, one step at a time, to avoid any policy relapse on the latter's part.


Another thing worth watching is whether the US will bring up a plan more focused on long-term strategic objectives. Currently Washington has not completed a full-fledged North Korea strategy and is still making one move at a time.


The US conviction that North Korea is a state of enough rationality to negotiate with has laid down the foundation for bilateral bargaining, but it cannot let go the long-held concern and suspicion about North Korea just yet.


Though US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has given Hill more room and power to reach relevant agreements in a show of support for him in conducting bilateral talks, the gestures constitute but a change on the level of diplomatic maneuver. The result that Washington expects to see has not materialized, as the US cannot make it happen on its own.


To a certain extent, the policy of the US toward North Korea is still in a stage of passive response calibrated according to North Korea's policy changes and their depths.


Its change remains subject to North Korea's policy shifts, and it is not possible to ascertain if the US policy toward North Korea has indeed undergone some strategic adjustment as of now.


The author is a researcher with the Institute of International Relations at the China Foreign Affairs University.


(China Daily September 19, 2007)

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