North Korean Nuclear Decision

A picture-perfect example of political manoeuvring, but key questions remain unanswered

By Alexander Neill, Head, RUSI Asia Security Programme

This article first appeared in the Scotsman, 28 June 2008

THIS is the most photogenic moment yet in the disarmament negotiations  which have dragged on for more than five years and suffered repeated deadlocks and  delays.

But key questions remain about North Korea's nuclear weapons and proliferation, and global powers still need to verify the claims in the nuclear declaration, which is supposed to detail the amount of plutonium this secretive state has produced.

It is is  a bit of a cosmetics job and does not really answer the key  questions:  How many warheads do they have, where are they stockpiled, what actions are being taken to close down the enriched plutonium programme?

North Korea's actions were in line with a deal with South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States to dismantle its nuclear programme in return for an easing of its international isolation.

These six-party talks could be seen as the main vehicle for resolving the nuclearisation of North Korea. But it is really China's involvement behind the scenes that has achieved the most leverage.

China is able to exert this kind of influence;   it may have offered to increase oil supplies in return for some kind of positive gesture. China has  a very active policy of  public diplomacy  and   is trying to show it can be seen as a responsible nation. It is hosting the Olympics and wants to be seen as a very responsible player on the international stage  rather than a nation responsible for the  uprisings over Tibet.

There is no way the US could apply any leverage to follow the demands of the United Nations in terms of ceasing the nuclear programme.

That said, it is entirely possible that this is a give-and-take effort by Kim Jong Il,  North Korea's leader. And it is  clear  it could be something to do with the fact that  a new administration will be taking over   in Washington next year.

North Korea wants to give itself space to manoeuvre. Up until now, Mr Kim  seemed to have boxed himself into a corner, particularly when North Korea tested its nuclear device in October 2006.

I am tempted to be cynical, but would not rule out further gestures of rapprochement. This could be a possible continuation of the co-operation symbolised by the New York Philharmonic being allowed to play in Pyongyang. Having said all that, North Korea is still very much a wild-card state.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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