N Korea unlikely to give up its atomic arsenal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am


While the latest deal to deliver aid to North Korea raised hopes for a restart of the six-nation talks on Pyongyang's nuclear programme, that's the extent of the optimism.

Insiders and envoys involved in the process see the six-party talks as a way of keeping Pyongyang 'in its box' during a turbulent year, and don't see that North Korea will ever want to give up its nuclear weapons.

'I have to admit I don't see much chance, frankly,' said one senior South Korean official. 'But, if there is any chance of talks, we all have to work to keep the pressure on. There's really no other choice.'

Some insiders point to the fact that once nations have nuclear weapons, they tend to keep them.

North Korea joined the nuclear club of the United States, China, India, France, Britain, Russia, Pakistan and, it is widely believed, Israel, when it exploded its first nuclear device in October 2006.

Only South Africa has voluntarily given up a nuclear-weapons capability.

The six-party talks, which involve both Koreas as well as China, the US, Russia and Japan, have a mixed record.

An agreement in September 2005 that saw Pyongyang vow to abandon its nuclear weapons programmes in return for diplomatic and economic inducements collapsed in less than a year amid fresh tensions with the US. Talks effectively ended in 2007 and by 2009, Pyongyang vowed never again to take part, and expelled international nuclear inspectors from the country. It tested another nuclear weapon underground and revealed a fresh uranium enrichment programme.

In 2010, a suspected North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 sailors - an act followed a few months later by a deadly artillery barrage on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong.

Seoul is still waiting for apologies and explanations from its enemy but officials insist they are prepared to let six-party talks restart, with nonnuclear issues to be dealt with in side talks with Pyongyang.

Cheng Jingye, China's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and North Korea's lead nuclear negotiator, Ri Yong-ho, have both expressed hope that the six-party talks can soon restart.

Seoul officials are watching for signs that Pyongyang may take a fresh approach under the helm of Kim Jong-un, the son of Kim Jong-il, who died last December. However, they believe the young Kim, aged in his late twenties, is strictly following negotiation manuals laid down by his late father. The latest deal with the US that sees North Korea freeze uranium enrichment in return for food aid was already under negotiation before the elder Kim's death.

Professor Lee Chung-min, the dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul's Yonsei University, is sceptical that the North will ever forgo nuclear weapons.

'The new North Korean leadership is highly unlikely to give up their nuclear weapons at a time when consolidating power under Kim Jong-un is the supreme goal. The six-party talks may be restarted but it's almost like the UN system: no one expects groundbreaking developments from the UN but no one wants to disavow it either.

'Given that we have key presidential elections and leadership changes in South Korea, the United States, and China - not to mention [Vladimir] Putin's recent re-election - in 2012, none of the stakeholders want Pyongyang to rock the boat.'

In Seoul, any optimism is tempered by fears of ongoing manipulation by Pyongyang - chiefly its desire to forge ties with the US at the expense of the South.

As Nigel Inkster, the retired head of operations for Britain's MI6 intelligence service, said: 'They have a limited hand, but they play it very skilfully.

'Far from being irrational or mad as they are often portrayed, the North Korean leadership can be entirely rational.'

For many analysts, part of that rationality is keeping, rather than destroying, its weapons stockpile.