Pyongyang calling

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 August, 2009, 12:00am

Despite the Obama administration's insistence that Bill Clinton's dramatic trip to North Korea was a private one separate from Washington's dispute with Pyongyang over nuclear weapons, the journey by the former president could potentially have a profound impact on the US-North Korean relationship.

While the administration was anxious to declare that the former president had no mandate to discuss policy issues, North Korea has announced that its leader, Kim Jong-il, had 'exhaustive' discussions with him on 'pending issues between the DPRK [North Korea] and the US in a sincere atmosphere and reached a consensus of views on seeking a negotiated settlement of them'.

While the North Koreans undoubtedly wanted the prestige of a visit by a former president, the choice of this particular former president was significant. After all, it was during the Clinton administration that the first agreement between the United States and North Korea was reached, the so-called Agreed Framework signed in Geneva on October 21, 1994.

At the time, North Korea agreed to give up its gas-graphite reactors, which produce plutonium usable for making nuclear bombs. In return, the US promised to provide heavy fuel oil to make up for the loss in power generation as well as two light-water reactors because plutonium from such reactors is harder to use for nuclear weapons.

As president, Mr Clinton personally wrote a letter of assurance promising that the US would undertake to make arrangements for the light-water reactor project.

But, less than three weeks after the agreement was signed, the Republicans won a major electoral victory, with majorities in both the Senate and the House. They opposed the Agreed Framework and refused to approve funding for it. As a result, North Korea never got its light-water reactors.

In 2002, when George W. Bush was in office, he accused the North Koreans of violating the accord with the Clinton administration by secretly enriching uranium. He then ended the provision of fuel oil. In response, Pyongyang restarted its reactor and openly began to produce plutonium for making bombs.

In 2003, the six-party talks began and agreement on a joint statement was reached in 2005. But, the North Koreans were never reconciled to losing the two promised light-water reactors. Even in the joint statement, under which North Korea committed itself to 'abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes', it insisted on revisiting the issue of light-water reactors, something that the five other countries 'agreed to discuss at an appropriate time'.

It is entirely possible, therefore, that when Mr Kim met with Mr Clinton, the North Korean leader could have brought up the issue of the promised reactors. Indeed, Mr Kim may even have produced the letter signed by Mr Clinton.

But the North Koreans also undoubtedly feel that they are in a stronger position now than in 1994. After all, at that time, they were just trying to obtain nuclear weapons and now they have conducted two nuclear tests and evidently possess several bombs. Even if they are willing to trade them away, they would be asking for a higher price. Pyongyang has also indicated that it wants to be treated as a nuclear power.

The US hopes that North Korea will return to the six-party talks, and to implement the agreement embodied in the joint statement, which eventually broke down over the absence of a verification agreement. North Korea has repeatedly said that it will never return to the six-party talks, but has indicated that it is open to bilateral talks with the US.

Since China hosted the six-party talks, refusal to return to this venue suggests that Pyongyang prefers to shut Beijing out of the process and to deal only with Washington.

It seems that relations between Pyongyang and Beijing, have cooled, despite this being the year of friendship between China and North Korea.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator