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