North Korea: Do Not Access All Areas

14 October 2008

North Korea: Do Not Access All Areas

By Gwynne Dyer

Korea is not a tropical country. In the autumn, the leaves turn yellow and red, and by October the process is pretty far along, especially in North Korea. Which is why there are grave doubts that Kim Jong-Il is in good health, as Pyongyang pretends, and indeed some question whether he is alive at all. And despite Monday’s agreement by Washington to take Kim’s neo-Stalinist regime off its list of terrorism sponsors, which persuaded North Korea to let international inspectors back into its Yongbyon nuclear site, we still don’t know where its nuclear weapons (if they exist) might be hidden.

Kim, the “Dear Leader” and absolute ruler of North Korea since 1994, has not been seen in public since early September, when he failed to make an appearance at a military parade marking the regime’s 60th anniversary. There was intense speculation in South Korea that the 66-year-old dictator had suffered a stroke and undergone surgery, although the source of this rumour was never clear.

The North Korean regime denied anything was wrong (as it always does), and last Saturday it finally produced some recent footage of Kim Jong-Il inspecting a women’s military unit. The only problem was that it was an outdoor location with lots of trees and bushes, and all the leaves were a lush green colour. Nowhere in Korea looks like that in mid-October; a horticultural expert at Seoul National University estimated that the event took place in July or August.

Couldn’t they at least have produced some INDOOR footage of the Dear Leader that nobody had seen before, so that the deception was not so obvious? Probably not, since this is a regime where the dictator’s activities are on the front page of the papers every day and lead the television news each evening. His every public act is documented, but the material is used immediately. They must have searched long and hard for some footage that would not already have been seen by every foreign embassy in Pyongyang. Too bad about the leaves.

This confirms that Kim Jong-Il is at least seriously ill. For all we know, he may be dead, and there may be a fierce succession struggle going on behind the scenes in Pyongyang. (The Dear Leader inherited power from his father, the “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung, who founded the regime in 1948, but none of the current ruler’s children have been publicly groomed for the throne.) Whatever the state of palace politics in Pyongyang, however, the regime retains the ability to run circles around the Bush administration in diplomacy.

The most recent confrontation began last month, when North Korea announced that it intended to restart nuclear activities at Yongbyon because the US had not kept its promise to remove Pyongyang from its terrorism blacklist. That was part of the six-country deal signed last November, in which North Korea agreed to end its nuclear activities in return for badly needed aid.

As part of the deal, Washington agreed to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism — and a lot of the aid could not legally flow to Pyongyang until that was done. But the Bush administration, as so often before, overplayed a weak hand: it stalled on removing the terrorism label in the hope of forcing North Korea to allow American and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors freer access to suspected North Korean nuclear sites.

So the North Koreans simply stopped dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear site (including the plutonium reprocessing plant) and announced that they were re-activating it. It took the Bush administration, in legacy mode and desperate for at least one apparent foreign policy success, only a couple of weeks to yield to Pyongyang’s demand. Washington removed North Korea from the terrorism list on Saturday, and Pyongyang let the inspectors back in on Sunday. But they can’t go wherever they please.

As before, international inspectors only have access to “declared” North Korean nuclear sites. “Undeclared” sites — ones that Pyongyang forgot to mention — can only be inspected with the regime’s permission, on a case-by-case basis. The whole play around the terrorism designation was an attempt by Washington to force Pyongyang to allow wider access, and it has failed miserably. Game, set and match to North Korea.

The harshest critic of this outcome is none other than John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security in the first Bush administration. Washington’s climb-down last weekend left all the key questions unanswered, he complained: “Where are their weapons? Where is the rest of their plutonium? Where is their uranium enrichment program? What have they done in terms of outward proliferation? And we got essentially nothing new on that other than a commitment to keep negotiating.”

What’s ironic about this is that Washington’s tactics in this diplomatic fiasco are very reminiscent of the style that Bolton favoured himself when he was in office: bluster and threats, with not much ability to deliver. It didn’t work for him, either.

The rest of the world still doesn’t know whether North Korea has usable nuclear weapons (it tested one in 2006, with unimpressive results), or how many, or where they might be hidden. Whoever is in charge in Pyongyang is playing a weak hand very, very well.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“Couldn’t…leaves”; and “What’s…either”)