Friday, March 2, 2012

Not Much Ado about Anything

Much has already been written in the 24 brief hours since the (presumably pre-planned) simultaneous release of U.S. Department of State and North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs statements late last night (local time), with most of it, both amateur, expert and politic, from the U.S., China and Russia alike, taking the news of North Korea’s moratorium on missile and nuclear activities at Yongbyon in exchange for 240,000 tons of American “nutritional assistance” plus promises to elevate bilateral contacts with modest positivity. For example;

To Steph Haggard it “constitutes a conciliatory (indeed, concessionary), not belligerent, gesture.”

To the Chinese, in the form of a Global Times editorial, it “removes a major obstacle to the resumption of the Six-Party Talks.”

To Scott Snyder, it “reduces risk that tensions may spin out of control during a period of domestic political uncertainty in both countries” (although Scott goes on to point to some serious limitations).

However, the fact is that even modest positivity seems to represent an unacceptable triumph of hope over expectation, and the idea that North Korea’s actions represent a “modest concession” quite an overstatement. I'm not saying it is impossible that the North Korean regime has seen the light, but it does seem awfully unlikely.

Instead, I am fairly confident that the North Koreans, relatively superb strategists that they are, have taken a sample of their fully operational Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) program from its mountain home in North Pyongan Province, put it in a building at Yongbyon, made a credible fist of constructing the shell of what has the potential to become a Light Water Reactor (LWR) at a nearby location, and then promptly “conceded” to do nothing with it in exchange for large amounts of aid. Put like that, it doesn’t sound very good, does it.

As a result, Pyongyang can now move to the next stage of the strategic plan that began with the inviting of Siegfried Hecker et al. to come and be shown HEU cascades in November 2010. In short; the endgame is fuzzy, but the strategy is not new.

That being said, the return of somewhat improved state-to-state relations that might actually marginally improve the lives of some of those on the lowest rungs of society is broadly to be supported. To that extent, it's good. 

But there is absolutely no reason to expect anything more at this stage; let us only hope that a newly invigorated U.S. State Dept. can avoid over-egging the pudding as North Korea enters high propaganda 'conference and birthday season' mode.

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