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Saturday, September 20

North Korea and the Russia Card (UPDATED 12:50 PM ET)

New York Times, September 20
Speculation on North Korean Leader Thrives in Factual Vacuum
The absence of facts is fertile ground for unrestrained speculation. News reports citing unnamed sources — or no sources — have proliferated. “At least North Korea doesn’t sue you,” journalists in Seoul say.
Korea Times, Sept 20:
World Spies Flock to North Korean Border
Amid North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s alleged illness, intelligence agents from around the world, notably South Korea, the United States and Japan, are flocking to China’s cities that border North Korea, Beijing-based International Herald Leader said Friday.

"Some countries have keen interest in collecting North Korea-related information by using satellites, dispatch of agents, and even dropping spies from an airplane. Among the countries, the United States, South Korea, and Japan are most active,” it said.
Dropping -- I hope they mean parachuting -- spies from planes, huh? We have a lazier way here in Punditaland. All right. After plowing through 30 reasonably substantiated news reports and analyses, working the Ouija board, staring at the configuration of tea leaves in the bottom of a cup and kissing a lucky rabbit's foot, I am ready to speak.

Here are my speculations on the thinking in North Korea's military that led to yesterday's announcement that Washington could go sit on a tack and that the Yongbyon nuclear reactor was being reassembled. First, a review of a few substantiated facts:

August 13, 2008

President George W. Bush announces that Washington will "use U.S. aircraft, as well as naval forces" to distribute "humanitarian" supplies in Georgia, and demands Russia withdraw troops from Georgia.

August 14, 2008

> Russia's General Staff announces that they question whether contents of two U.S. C-17 military planes landed in Georgia contain humanitarian supplies as part of the Pentagon's stated "humanitarian assistance mission" to Georgia.

> Without announcement, North Korea's military suddenly halts dismantling of the nuclear reactor and other facilities at Yongybon and orders that dismantled parts be hauled out of storage.

> North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il is last seen in public on or about August 14; rumors eventually surface that he suffered a stroke around that time.(1)

August 26, 2008

> The U.S. embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia announces that two U.S. warships will deliver humanitarian aid the next day to the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, where Russian troops have been mounting patrols.

> North Korea's Foreign Ministry releases a statement charging that the U.S. failed to honor its pledge under the 2007 accord to remove North Korea from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. "This was an outright violation of the agreement," said the ministry spokesman.

> The ministry also announces that the halt in dismantling the reactor had begun on August 14 and that steps had begun on that date to restore parts of the reactor that had been removed up to that point in accordance with the 2007 six-party agreement.

There's not necessarily an exclusively cause-and-effect relationship between the U.S. actions toward Russia and the North Korean actions cited above. However, in the weeks since August 14, it so happens that Pyongyang's hardline rhetoric toward the United States escalated in time with the escalation of U.S. hardline rhetoric toward Russia.

Pyongyang's rhetoric has been backed up by actions -- not only the moves to reassemble the nuclear reactor but also:
In recent weeks, U.S. officials said they have seen signs that Pyongyang could be preparing for a long-range missile test from a recently constructed launch site on North Korea's western coast...(1)
The hardline trend escalated again yesterday when a Pyongyang envoy took the same belittling tone toward the United States government that Condoleezza Rice used toward Russia's government the previous day.

I note that Washington, perhaps misreading the tea leaves, has been laid back to the point of patronizing in their response to the signs of Pyongyang's growing recalcitrance:
U.S. officials said amid this uncertainty they are attempting to maintain an unthreatening posture toward North Korea while continuing to try to build bridges to Pyongyang's military. The State Department's point man on North Korea, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, has sought to bring the KPA into the negotiating process aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program, but Pyongyang's military has balked.

"Communication is up and running and that's important," said a South Korean government official involved in the process. "But there is no sign from the North that they have stopped reversing the disablement activity." (1)
From the viewpoint of the KPA, even more alarming than Rice's belligerent words was the announcement on the same day by a "senior U.S. Defense official" that Western defense ministers would consider the creation of an easily deployable military force that could be sent into nations feeling threatened by Russia.

That announcement gives lie to repeated statements by U.S. officials that Washington is not trying to restart the Cold War.

Yes of course they're trying to restart the Cold War, and they're already well down the road to doing so. This fact is not lost on North Korea's military leaders, who were always strongly opposed to Kim Jong-il's agreement to dismantle Yongbyon.(1)

The question is whether Moscow's problems with Washington would be the excuse the KPA (Korean People's Army) old guard needed to override Kim and other officials in the NK government who support a genuine warming of relations with the United States.

A good place to start wrestling with the question is Stratfor's September 16 analysis of North Korea's relationship with other members of the six-party talks.

Stratfor reminds us that China and Russia are the only countries with direct influence inside Pyongyang and observes:
[...] Russia remains a powerful player in the game because of its formal ties to Pyongyang going back to the Cold War. Russia was not able to maintain this relationship as well as China did because the collapse of the Soviet Union restricted its capacity to act in its Far East.

Though in recent times Moscow has focused on its European and Caucasian frontiers, Russia continues to cooperate with North Korea on business and infrastructure projects. In 2008, construction began on the Russian-North Korean railroad, and discussions have moved forward on power transmission, an oil and natural gas pipeline and a Russian automobile assembly line. The Russians could see the transition or evolution of North Korean power as an opportunity to advance their long-term plan for the Far East.

Of course, anything resembling a power grab by Moscow will anger Beijing, and this at a time when the two are attempting to hash out a deal to ensure their interests in Central Asia do not collide. Whether the Russians will cooperate with the Chinese over North Korea remains to be seen, but certainly Russia presents complications for Beijing. [...]
It's likely that the KPA hardliners would see both opportunity and cause for alarm in Washington's belligerent posture toward Russia.

The hardliners have seen with their own eyes how the U.S. has used Georgia as a pawn in a typical Cold War play. So the hardliners have reason to be concerned that the U.S. actions in Georgia presage military action against Russia. In that event, there is no question that North Korea would stand with Russia.

Additionally, by thumbing their noses at the U.S. on the world stage, the KPA is giving Moscow a reason to downplay their objections to restarting Yongbyon and shrug their way through any additional six-party talks.

None of the above examines other possible reasons for the KPA to reject the 2007 agreement, such as soured relations with Seoul and anger at Japan's way of saying the KPA is trying to start a shooting war.

But given the condemnatory signals toward Russia sent by Barack Obama and John McCain in the wake of Russia's 'peacekeeping' invasion of Georgia, I doubt that one of the reasons is that the hardliners hope to get a better deal with the next U.S. President.

The subtext to several situations around the world at this time is that there is a very powerful and deeply entrenched anti-Russia lobby in Washington -- actually, several lobbies. This is in addition to the influence still wielded by the old Anti-Soviet Cold War Warriors and the energy lobbies here and abroad that want control of Russia's oil and natural gas resources. That is not counting the most determined and manipulative enemy of Vladimir Putin's administration, which is the British government.

Put it all together, and the combination of factions guarantees that when it comes to U.S. policy on Russia, it won't matter which presidential candidate takes the White House. Recently Vladimir Putin made a cynical reference to this reality when he observed that President Bush was controlled by Washington's imperial court.

God bless Vladimir Putin, who never learned to speak in a way other than what he is, which is a technocrat with absolutely no faith in the reasoning capacities of the ruling class.

However, Putin is sometimes failed by his intelligence analysts on account of their difficulty grasping the nuances of American democracy; e.g., They assumed Bush fired Dan Rather.

And in this case Putin was not entirely right. Since 9/11 Bush has been fighting the Bash Russia crowd with his hands tied behind his back because of wartime exigencies.

But once Bush leaves the White House, there will be no powerful force left in Washington to brake the plans of those on both sides of the Pond who want to overthrow Putin's government and failing that, invade Russia.

You may trust those facts are not lost on the KPA leaders. So I think North Korea's old guard would have to be daffy to hope for a better deal from the next U.S. President. Is it possible that since figuring this out Korea's generals have decided to play hardball, in a last-ditch effort to wring a few more goodies out of the Bush administration?

Pyongyang has cried "Wolf!" so many times in the past that it's tempting to assume they're up to their old tricks. But when I examine the announcements from North Korea made during the past month against the unfolding drama involving Washington and Russia over the same time period, I don't think it's wise to assume that Pyongyang is play acting this time.

What's next? Yesterday, the first inter-Korean talks since July took place; this occurred at the House of Peace, a South Korean administrative building inside the "truce village" of Panmunjom. The talks were billed as a "working-level meeting on economy and energy assistance and the six-party nuclear talks."

The confab might have been planned with this Sunday in mind. If I recall correctly from the reports, Christopher Hill will be meeting his South Korean counterpart in New York on Sunday and Secretary Rice will be there on the same day to meet with China's envoy.

In that event it's likely that Pyongyang's envoy delivered a message yesterday to South Korea's government that he wants passed along to Washington on Sunday. We'll learn soon enough what the message is, but I doubt it will be encouraging news for the six-party talks.

If my speculations are near the mark, would there be anything Bush could do to help rescue the 2007 agreement?

Well, he could always tell the American contingent of Washington's Bash Russia crowd that "God Save the Queen" is not the U.S. national anthem.

But that would be a parting shot, along the lines of his telling the other G-7 members, "Good-bye from the world's biggest polluter."

I'll make another pot of tea and see what kind of mood Ouija is in. Meanwhile, readers may wish to ponder this September 9 editorial by a South Korean who doesn't seem to be part of the Sunshine Policy crowd.

And for the traditionalists I've included the text for the Q_&A from Friday's State Department press briefing on the North Korea situation. How Arabic got into the discussion gives you an idea of how things are going.(2)

12:50 PM ET Update
Miss P:
Not a bad call on a Russia-DPRK tie-in. Putin would bluntly offer Pyongyang a quid pro quo without beating around the bush and the norks sometimes take the initiative if they are going to rattle their tin cup.
Mark Safranski

1) U.S., North Korea Talks Are in State of 'Inertia'
Kim's Health Raises Uncertainties, Stalls Nuclear Discussions by Jay Solomon; Wall Street Journal, September 19.

2) U.S. Department of State
Daily Press Briefing
Sean McCormack, Spokesman
Washington, DC
September 19, 2008
QUESTION: They seem to have taken the plunge from -- and now confirming and saying that they’re going to restart Yongbyon and that they don’t care anymore about getting off the state sponsors list. So where does that leave you and where does that leave that State Department?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we’ll see. And you know, the same basic response as I have been given over the past week or so as we’ve been talking about this story, and that is we’re looking for the output, looking for the verification regime where we, as well as others continue to be in contact with them and urge them, to get to the point where they approve that verification regime.

I checked on this question of where do they stand vis-à-vis those three stages we were talking about. The first stage, talking about trying to reverse what they’ve done. The second stage, making the – taking preparatory steps to reverse the shutdown of Yongbyon. And then the last stage is actually going operational and starting up Yongbyon again and continuing to produce plutonium and put the fuel rods in the reactor. We’re still in the second stage.

Now as they have said, and has been reported, they continue to move to the right, getting closer to that point where they are to the point of operationalizing Yongbyon again. They haven’t gotten to that point yet. And we would urge them not to get to that point.

Look, as always, throughout this process they have a choice: They can go down the pathway of having a different kind of relationship with the rest of the world, receiving the benefits of that relationship, or they can keep themselves isolated, move the process backwards. So we’ll see. I don’t think we’re to the point yet of their having fully reversed what they have done. But they are continuing to move that direction. And we’re going to remain engaged with the North Koreans and, in particular, are going to remain engaged with the other members of the Six-Party Talks.

And the Secretary looks forward to having a meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister when she’s up at the UN General Assembly next week. And I would expect that this will be an important topic of conversation.

QUESTION: But what – why should the North Koreans deal with this Administration in its last four months?

MR. MCCORMACK: Look, I – you know, I don’t know who the next President and who the next Secretary of State is going to be, but I would wager that they’re not going to get a much different deal from the next administration as they’re getting from this administration. This is a solid process, a solid mechanism to try to solve really one of the toughest problems that is out there, and that is denuclearizing that Korean Peninsula which, for the past 60 years, has been a real source of geopolitical tension. This process holds out the prospect of defusing that longstanding geopolitical tension as well, as removing a serious threat in terms of proliferation, as well as, you know, North Korea possessing nuclear weapons.

So the process is a solid one. I think the logic behind it is indisputable. Again, I’m not going to speak for those who come after us here in this Administration. But I would wager that they probably are not going to get a much different deal from whomever comes next.

QUESTION: So you would – you would tell -- if you were to be advising the North Korean leadership on this, you would say that you don’t think that they’re going to get any better deal? That this is --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, they’ll make their own calculations. And first of all, I’m not going to offer them any advice and, second of all, I don’t think they would take it. But --

QUESTION: Do you – everything you’ve said so far is offering them advice.

MR. MCCORMACK: No, no, no, no. You asked me a question; I gave you my best answer to it. But you know, again, I would caveat I don’t know what the policies of the next administration will be. I can only point out that this is a process that for the first time, really in decades, offers the prospect of addressing proliferation issues, political issues, security issues, all at once in one – in one process.

QUESTION: Would you say that a North Korean calculation that they should hold out and try for a better deal from the next administration is a fundamentally flawed --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, you know, I would only submit to you that there are existing Security Council resolutions that hold penalties for North Korea, should they go down the pathway of, for example, missile testing; for example, further testing of any nuclear devices. So there – the downsides are quite clear for them, and they exist even beyond, you know, American administrations. They’re enshrined in international law at this point.

So you know, that gives you a sense for where the international system is. And again, I don’t think that there’s a better solution at this point than this process.

QUESTION: Sean, do you link this reversal from the North Koreans – do you link this to Kim Jong-il’s apparently deteriorating health? And is there a decision-making, sort of, freeze in North Korea possibly, or --

MR. MCCORMACK: I’m not going to – you know, I’m not going to make any comments about the news reports of Kim Jong-il’s health. I have seen the news reports out there. I’m not going to discount them, but I’m not going to certainly add in public to those news reports.

One thing we know for certain is that we have – we have yet to see any outputs from the North Koreans. And certainly, we have not seen any outputs from the North Koreans in the past month or so.

QUESTION: Change of subject?

QUESTION: Actually, I just want to ask one more thing.


QUESTION: (Inaudible) moving to the right. That means – in the second stage? That means they’re getting closer to --

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I’m sort of – trying to draw --

QUESTION: It means it’s moving backwards. It’s not moving --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I mean, you can – (laughter) – I view it – you know, I view it as a progression, albeit it a negative progression, but a progression moving, you know, left to right.

QUESTION: And that’s a change from what – when you first started --

MR. MCCORMACK: I suppose we could move from right to left, depending on, you know, what alphabet you use.



QUESTION: When you first started seeing the equipment being moved --


QUESTION: I mean, you weren’t quite sure what was going on. That’s a change now, that you’re seeing it go towards the right or backwards or however you want to say it?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, you know, look, again, I can’t get inside the decision-making loop of the North Koreans, you know. I can’t explain to you what the intent is behind their doing this, whether this is, you know, an attempt at a negotiating tactic or what have you. All I know is that the process isn’t going to move forward absent their – a positive decision on the verification regime.

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