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Week of 6.27.08

A Friendly North Korea?

After North Korea handed over data on its nuclear program to officials from China, President Bush announced he will remove Pyongyang from the U.S. terrorism blacklist and remove key sanctions. NOW asked David Kang, an expert on North Korea, for his reaction to the news.

NOW: Are you surprised by today's events on the part of the U.S. and North Korea?

David Kang David Kang (DK): I'm not surprised. The basic agreement was for a phased set of "actions for actions," and in this case it was fairly explicit that North Korea's complete declaration would be met with the U.S. [delisting North Korea as state sponsor of terrorism and removing certain sanctions.]

Although it took longer than originally planned to get to this phase, both sides appear ready to move onto the next, more difficult, phase: accounting for the nuclear weapons and North Korean proliferation activities, and U.S. moving to open some type of political and economic relations with the North.

NOW: Do you think North Korea will stick to their stated goal of denuclearization?

"A major question is what North Korea will do with the eight to 12 nuclear weapons they already have."
DK: This is the big question. Right now, the North Korean nuclear program is effectively capped—that is, they cannot produce any more nuclear weapons. Their plutonium program is being dismantled at this moment, and the U.S. has fairly clearly concluded that whatever uranium enrichment program they might have had is no longer operating. Thus, further proliferation is highly unlikely.

This in itself is a major achievement compared to Iran, where there is no agreement on anything and Iran continues to move forward with its nuclear program. However, a major question is what North Korea will do with the 8-12 nuclear weapons they already have. They have stated that they are willing—under the right conditions—to destroy these. Many outside observers are quite skeptical of that, believing that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has no intention of disarming completely. As this process moves forward, we will get a better idea of whether or not Kim is serious about complete denuclearization.

NOW: Will Pyongyang's accounting help explain whether or not North Korea assisted Syria in building what senior U.S. intelligence officials allege was a secret nuclear reactor?

DK: North Korea at this stage will probably "acknowledge" U.S. concerns about assistance to Syria, but we have little belief that North Korea will actually explain their relations with Syria in detail. Most likely, this issue will wait for further negotiations.

NOW: Will this development make North Korea less isolated from the rest of the world?

"There is still potential that North Korea could involve itself in dealings with groups such as Al-Qaeda."
DK: This is a major step toward North Korea becoming less isolated. Although practically little will change—North Korea will remain one of the most heavily sanctioned states in the world—this symbolic "first step" will show that the process is moving forward. It also begins to raise the possibility that the World Bank or other international organizations may move forward in their dealings with North Korea, although that is likely to be a slow and incremental process. This step is in the right direction, but much more remains before North Korea becomes relatively "unisolated."

NOW: You said in an interview last year with NOW that there was concern that North Korea would sell nuclear weapons to Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. Does this threat remain?

DK: There has always been a concern about North Korea's dealings with other "rogue" actors in the international system—the suspected Syria-North Korea link is just the latest of these worries. So yes, there is still potential that North Korea could involve itself in dealings with groups such as Al-Qaeda. That being said, right now it appears that these links are not current, and North Korea does not appear at this time to be pursuing such links. My own belief is that as long as this process with the US is moving forward—however haltingly—North Korea will refrain from looking to other relationships. However, this could change for any number of reasons.

NOW: What do you think of the presidential candidates' stances on North Korea?

"Obama appears to be more willing to talk directly with North Korea in addition to keeping the "sticks" available."
DK: McCain has stated that he believes keeping pressure on North Korea via sanctions is a good step, and while he has welcomed this latest North Korean declaration, he also said: "If we are unable to fully verify the declaration submitted today and if I am not satisfied with the verification mechanisms developed, I would not support the easing of sanctions on North Korea."

McCain has not supported direct talks as much as has Obama, who has said that direct negotiations can be one way of dealing with North Korea. However, Obama also said that sanctions on Pyongyang should only be lifted "based on North Korean performance...The declaration was a step forward but other steps needed to follow." Both of them are cautiously supportive of the recent developments, and both think sanctions remain a viable option, although Obama appears to be more willing to talk directly with North Korea in addition to keeping the "sticks" available.

More From NOW:

David Kang on North Korea's Nuclear Program

The Best U.S. Response to North Korea's Failed Missile Test

Related Links:

New York Times: Bush Rebuffs Hard-Liners to Ease North Korean Curbs

Dartmouth College: David Kang