Michael KreponDPRK Announcement

Surprise can come in two big packages labeled pleasant and unpleasant. North Korea’s announcement that it has agreed to suspend enrichment and long-range missile flight tests while resuming IAEA inspections clearly falls in the first category. If Pyongyang reneges on these pledges in due course, after haggling for something, the result will be unpleasant, but not a surprise. The announced moratorium on nuclear testing now links North Korea’s declaratory policy with that of India and Pakistan. Renewed testing remains a possibility, but breaking this pledge will probably entail higher costs.

I enjoy the luxury of leaving to others the hard work of dealing with North Korea. Joel Wit has been chewing on this tough nut since 1993, when he worked at the State Department on the Agreed Framework. He has also worked on KEDO. He has visited the North maybe fifteen times, and is the co-author of three books: Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis (2004), Preparing for Sudden Change in North Korea (2009) and North Korean Reform: Politics, Economics and Security (2010).

I asked Joel for his take on the announcement:

By now everyone has seen the new US-DPRK agreement characterized by the Obama administration as a modest step forward. It seems every time the US and DPRK negotiate, someone always resorts to the old Asian proverb, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This agreement is definitely a single step.

But it is an important step for three reasons. First, it buys us time. Another North Korean nuclear test that could trigger a DPRK announcement that it has miniaturized warheads for its missiles would only make a bad situation much worse. This result puts that day off at least a little bit into the future and maybe even longer depending on progress made in further talks.

Second, aside from stopping activity at the one uranium enrichment plant in the DPRK we know about, if inspectors are allowed to verify the suspension of its operation, the international community might be able to learn more about the program. As everyone knows, only one group of foreigners has seen the inside of the facility and then only briefly. What is interesting is that the North Koreans know monitoring will reveal more information about this facility and their capabilities. Why are they taking this step? It’s hard to say.

Finally, this arrangement may help build a foundation for further progress in stopping, and eventually rolling back the DPRK nuclear effort. In the circles I move in, the people who chatter most about North Korea are almost all regional experts. They talk about “denuclearization” not knowing that process can’t happen overnight, particularly with a program that is almost five decades old. (This isn’t Libya!) It will require freezing and rolling back first and that will take time.

In reading the two unilateral statements, a number of potential problems are clear. Food deliveries will not be a problem since much of the details are already worked out. Implementation of the moratorium, however, may prove difficult since it requires the DPRK and IAEA to work out the monitoring measures, particularly at the Yongbyon uranium enrichment plant. There is a lot of bad blood between the two although, if they are really serious, the North Koreans can be on their best behavior. As a State Department official who often played go-between for Vienna and Pyongyang in the 1990s, I saw the DPRK’s behavior turn on a dime when it felt cooperating with the IAEA was in its interests.

Just as, if not more significant, are the DPRK’s unilateral statement makes it clear for anyone who didn’t already realize this that there are going to be serious problems in negotiating further agreements if the Six Party Talks resume. The statement stakes out the North’s going in position, “priority will be given to the discussion of issues concerning the lifting of sanctions on the DPRK and provision of light-water reactors,” which is troublesome. In particular, there is virtually no support for the provision of LWRs to the North. Yet, Pyongyang insists that must happen if it is to give up its uranium enrichment program and nuclear weapons.

One might ask why has this agreement been reached until now? It’s a good question. All the Washington talking heads have been opining that nothing was going to happen in talks with North Korea since this is an election year in the U.S. and Pyongyang has little interest in reaching new agreements. So the agreement came as a big surprise to many of them. It’s hard to say what is going on inside an administration that has played its cards close to its chest except that it now understands its policy of “strategic patience,” trying to convince Pyongyang to change its bad behavior through pressure and isolation, has failed. Pressure and isolation are fine, but without reaching out through diplomacy they are a dead end.

On why the North would make this move, it’s not surprising to find the same “hyper-analysis” on North Korea that permeates the media all the time working its way into this story. Some silly people think the agreement proves that “strategic patience” has worked and Pyongyang is crying uncle. More thoughtful analysts believe the North’s chess move may reflect a desire to escape the Chinese bear hug reflected by a relationship today that is the closest it has been for decades. Others see it as a tactical step made because the North wants to maintain a calm external environment during the first year of its leadership transition. Still others believe the North agreed to a moratorium since it really isn’t ready to conduct more nuclear or missile tests and needs time to do more work on its enrichment program at facilities that are located somewhere other Yongbyon. All of these explanations are possible.


  1. 3.1415 (History)

    As long as China needs a divided Korea like United States needs a quasi-independent Taiwan, North Korea will always have the ability to play both parties at almost no cost. It is pathetic to see the tail wags both dogs, as the dogs are playing dumb and dumber. Nixon is weaping from his grave; Mao is cursing “一代不如一代!” (weaker and weaker, generation after generation). We used to elect people who care about legacies. Have all ambitious people been sucked into Wall Street or Silicon Valley?

    • Mark Lincoln (History)

      China needs a stabile North Korea. It does not mind a buffer state between it and the ROK.

      The DPRKs position is so feeble that it has to throw tantrums to get any attention at all.

      Reunification with the south is seen as inevitable on both sides, but the overwhelming economic superiority of the Republic of Korea ensures that any reunification will come at the cost of the rulers of the DPRK and the benefit of it’s masses.

      How to dismount the tiger without being consumed? A question for which the DPRK leadership is wrestling.

      How to deal with the economic depravation of the north without a flood of refugees rushing across the Yalu and 38th parallel?

      A daunting problem for all involved, and with six parties involved, it becomes almost impossible.

      “Wait” said Tokugawa Ieyasu.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      How can North and South Korea unite? How can their economies mesh? The North needs so much, and would drag down the South’s considerable gains. The people of South Korea would have to make immense and long term sacrifice if they really were to integrate the people of the North. Then there’s the leadership cadres. How can the leadership cadres of the South absorb the cadres of the North? They both have totally different models for obtaining wealth and power, and have different models on how to use it. It would be much easier to believe reunification were really going to happen if I saw the kinds of social dynamics in the North that was saw in the South back in the 70’s and 80’s. How does that happen in today’s North? Maybe we should air drop in i-pods and serve them internet via the Iridium network.

  2. Mark Lincoln (History)

    Since the death of Kim Il Sung almost 20 years ago the major question from the viewpoint of the DPRK has been the end of the Korean War by treaty.

    North Korea has repeatedly ‘demanded’ by many means negotiations to bring an end to the armistice and normalize relations with the world.

    Yet at the same time North Korea has been even more intransigent than the USA, which remains absolutely opposed to any treaty ending the war.

    The change in regime seems to have created an opening.

    We may be certain that the vested interests of the ruling clique and the massive armed forces prevent any rapid change of position.

    With the second generation of leader educated outside Korea, there is a possibility that a serious change in the situation on the Korean penninusla is within reach.

    The re-admission of the IAEA represents a real opening because of the very real need of the DPRK to address it’s horrible economic situation and the ability to monitor at least some of the DPRKs activities.

    The paranoid hermit kingdom is insecure, incompetent, and dangerous largely from those reasons of weakness, rather than any desire to reopen a war which it essentially lost.

    It may no longer pursue the policies of ‘self-sufficiency’ and militarism which have driven it’s existence and that have caused it to have a failed economy.

    East Asia’s L’enfant terrible remains a threat so long as it remains isolated.

  3. joshua (History)


    For good measure, here’s the parallel and effectively simultaneous State Dept release:


    And here’s a transcript of the State Dept backgrounder:


    I would hesitate to compare North Korea’s nuclear test moratorium to India’s or Pakistan’s. First, the last sentence of the North Korean statement makes clear that the moratoria (including verification of no enrichment at Yongbyon) serve the purposes of the current series of bilateral talks and will apply “while productive dialogues continue.”

    Second, we have been down the moratorium route with North Korea before: from September 1999 to July 2006, they agreed to refrain from flight-testing any long-range missiles. It lasted while it lasted. That experience reinforces the first point: the moratorium is not indefinite or unconditional.

    For context, here’s the last paragraph of the statement in full:

    “The DPRK, upon request by the U.S. and with a view to maintaining positive atmosphere for the DPRK-U.S. high-level talks, agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at Nyongbyon and allow the IAEA to monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment while productive dialogues continue.”

  4. John Schilling (History)

    Am I the only one wondering why a nation willing to give up its uranium enrichment program is nontheless so insistent on having light-water reactors, which require enriched uranium to work? North Korea in particular does not seem like the sort of country that would be happy having a key part of its energy infrastructure perpeptually dependent on foreign good will – they might just as well sign up to buy South Korean electricity and be done with it.

    Possibly they expect to resume enrichment in the future, either when the rest of the world figures out what nice guys they are and says “Oh, sure, go ahead and enrich all you want – but play nice, no bombs”. Possibly even they expect to resume covert enrichment when the rest of the world gets bored and stops inspecting, but if nothing else a honking big nuclear reactor conspicuously generating gigawatts long after it should have run out of fuel will be a conspicuous sign.

    But I suspect we are dealing with a more hopeful sign: The LWR is a negotiating point, something the Norks are ultimately willing to trade away for what they really want. And if the rest of what they have been talking about is what they really want, that might be a pretty good deal.

    If that’s the case, it will be annoying as heck listening to them whine about how much they really, really wanted and needed that light-water reactor, long after the deal is done, but I think I could live with that.

    • Cameron (History)

      Their statement only suspends the HEU process, they haven’t agreed to let it go entirely (although they must see that as what we want) so LWR’s is, as you say, a nice additional point with which to gain concessions at no cost.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      I think they could rely on China for LWR low-enriched Uranium fuel.

      If they verifiably gave up further enrichment, that would be harmless from everyone’s perspective, and if they and China stop getting along then their situation goes to untenable in so many ways that this would be down in the noise.

    • John Schilling (History)

      It goes against North Korea’s essential nature to rely on anyone for anything, though of course that is subject to change and to compromise.

      But, yes, they could probably depend on China for LEU reactor fuel. They could just as easily depend on China for coal, or for electricity wired across the border. It seems implausible that their preference for the reactor sans enrichment is as strong as they claim it to be.

      We will presumably find out during the negotiations. As I said, I am optimistic on this one.

    • rwendland (History)

      The KCNA statement says “moratorium on … uranium enrichment activity at Nyongbyon and [IAEA monitoring] while productive dialogues continue.”

      So strictly that only refers to the LEU enrichment for their experimental LWR, not including (for now) monitoring of any other experimental/R&D enrichment plant elsewhere they may have. And there is no implication they are considering a permanent enrichment shutdown, though longterm IAEA monitoring is on the cards.

      Reading between the lines, I suspect NK has never wanted enrichment for bombs – they have the plutonium and test data for a minimum deterrent. Both for status (matching South Korea) and for the future of the existing nuclear workforce, they want LWR power. They probably realise developing it themselves is a long task, so want to import a large reactor.

      If we want NK not to enrich, and buy in LWR fuel instead, we could be well advised to consider ways for them to get a Chinese PWR, such as a CPR-1000, so the Chinese can easily supply fuel and expertise. If the Agreed Framework/KEDO LWR project from South Korea is rewarmed, I suspect NK will want at least R&D enrichment and fuel production themselves, so they are less politically dependent on SK.

      This does assume NK is willing to trade in the bombs and plutonium for a wide-ranging political deal and LWRs. It will be a complex deal to put together, well timed for after the US Presidential election. The regime-change lobby are not going to like this.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      The advantage with LEU reactor fuel is that the “refueling interval” is many months, as opposed to coal supplies (could be large, but typically power plants run with a week or less worth of coal onsite) or power lines across the border (could be cut off instantly).

      In terms of stockpiled months of operations without Chinese cooperation, the PWR reactor / LEU fuel system seems optimized.

      It’s not as good as a fully independent system, but they may be aiming for a realistic local maximum in their benefit rather than global one. The global one – that they in fact are independent of external resources – is a generation worth of serious economic reform and improvement away. This is true for food, fuel, and electric power right now, as well as manufactured goods and so forth.

  5. OT (History)

    I’d like to place a bet.

    NK will “allow the IAEA to monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment”, but in such way that it does not reveal what real enrichment capability it has.

    Say, they simply cut electicity to the building with shiny vertical cylinders inside. You’ll be walked through it, but you won’t see what’s really under the hood (air).

  6. Gridlock (History)

    I can’t see any dictator who watched Qhadhaffi die as, umm, uncomfortably as he did giving up nuclear weapons in the next 50 years or so, frankly.

    Prove me wrong I guess

  7. marsh113 (History)

    One step forward, two steps back. Based on their practice of broken promises, I’ll believe it when I see it. Sorry.