Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Success in North Korea but will Iran follow?

AOG, Madrid

North Korea has agreed to take steps toward nuclear disarmament under a groundbreaking deal struck on Tuesday that will bring the impoverished communist state some $300 million in aid.

Under the agreement, it will freeze the reactor at the heart of its nuclear program and allow international inspections of the site. The US and Japan -albeit belatedly- also said they would take early steps toward normalizing relations with North Korea, although a long running dispute between Japan and North Korea over kidnapping of its nationals by its communist neighbor, is still far from solved.

Washington agreed to resolve the issue of frozen North Korean bank accounts in Macau's Banco Delta Asia within 30 days, chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill told reporters.

As a special treat, the US will also initiate -under a separate bilateral forum- a process to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. This must be because the US have proof that North Korea no longer sponsors terrorism, or proof that it never did. Either way I think it is in everyone's interest to know which is it of the two possibilities.

The proposed plan hammered out by the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and China after nearly a week of intensive talks will only be the first step in locating and dismantling North Korea's nuclear arms activities, leaving many questions to future negotiations.

"These talks represent the best opportunity to use diplomacy to address North Korea''s nuclear programs," President Bush said in a statement.

White House spokesman Tony Snow called it a "very important first step toward the denuclearization of North Korea" but said Pyongyang still faces sanctions if it reneges. Which it may do, as it has done before.

Iran standing by....

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iran, another country at loggerheads with the West over its nuclear program, should see North Korea as an example. Indeed.

"Why should it not be seen as a message to Iran that the international community is able to bring together its resources?" she asked at a news conference.

Perhaps what Iran will see is that it is not enough to appear to be a nuclear power to get the US to the negotiating table; it might come to the conslusion that it is, in fact, a sine qua non condition for american collaboration.

As a morsel of things to come, Pyongyang's official KCNA news agency said the other parties decided to offer economic and energy aid equivalent to one million tonnes of heavy oil in connection with North Korea''s "temporary" suspension of the operation of its nuclear facilities. Hill dismissed that report as posturing. "Any action to restart the reactors would be a violation of the agreement," he told reporters. And yet....straight from the mouth of babes...

U.S. trade sanctions will also begin to be lifted from a country Bush once lumped with Iran and Iraq on an "axis of evil."

But is it a good deal after all?

One area of uncertainty is whether North Korea has a highly enriched uranium program as alleged by the USA. North Korea has not acknowledged the existence of such a program. Highly enriched uranium can be the fissile material for nuclear weapons and its production can be much harder to detect than plutonium refinement.

"We have to get a mutually satisfactory outcome on this. We need to know precisely what is involved," Hill said.

As details of the draft leaked out, Japan was already voicing doubt that any agreement could be made to stick.

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and outspoken conservative, said the Communist state should not be rewarded with "massive shipments of heavy fuel oil" for only partially dismantling its nuclear program.

"It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world," he told CNN.

The deal says North Korea must take steps to shut down its main nuclear reactor within 60 days. In return, it will receive 50,000 tonnes of fuel oil or economic aid of equal value. It will also receive another 950,000 tonnes of fuel oil or equivalent when it takes further steps to disable its nuclear capabilities, including providing a complete inventory of its plutonium -- the fuel used in Pyongyang's first nuclear test blast in October 2006. The 1 million tonnes of fuel would be worth around US$300 million at current prices.

The steps for now do not involve providing 2,000 megawatts of electricity - at an estimated cost of $8.55 billion over 10 years and about equal to North Korea's current output - that South Korea pledged in September 2005 and which is due after North Korea's denuclearization is completed.

The deal is obviously less than perfect. It involves the cooperation of a distrustful North Korea and its only-too-willing donors

North Korea has been here before. In 1994 there was an agreement with the Clinton administration which would only collapse in 2002 after Washington accused Pyongyang of seeking to produce weapons-grade uranium.

And lets not forget that between the two Koreas there is a truce, not a peace treaty. The US maintains some 30,000 troops on the Korean peninsula, which has remained in a technical state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War truce.

Can it get worse...? Japan will not join in giving aid to North Korea because of past abductions of its nationals by Pyongyang's agents, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in Tokyo.

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