One of the Bush Administration's rare foreign policy successes seems to be in the process of unravelling as North Korea reneges on an agreement to kill off its nuclear weapons program. The hardline Stalinist regime announced last week that it would restart a nuclear processing plant to make weapons-grade material. On Wednesday it began to make good on that threat, denying inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency access to the Yongbyon plant and having seals and surveillance equipment removed.
Ever since the North Koreans set off an underground test explosion of a nuclear bomb in October 2006, the international community has been scrambling to nip the totalitarian regime's nuclear weapons program in the bud. In February 2007 Pyongyang agreed to shut down the Yongbyon plant following six-party talks with the United States, South Korea, Russia, China and Japan. In return the isolated nation was to be given energy aid amounting to 1 million tons of oil and assurances it would be removed from Washington's list of states that sponsor terrorism. However, by August of this year the US was still refusing to take North Korea off that list until Pyongyang provided more details of exactly how it was disabling its nuclear weapons capability.
While North Korea has now vowed to restart its plutonium production there is some speculation that this may be a ploy to boost its negotiating hand with the West. However, reports about the ill health of the North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Il have raised nervousness about a possible power struggle in Pyongyang. "There is uncertainty about who is in charge," Robert S. Norris of the Washington-based National Resources Defense Council told the Associated Press. "Now that he may be weakened -- or who knows, dead -- there may be emerging a possible clique of hard-liners who want to play hardball again."
On Wednesday US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that any move by Pyongyang to restart its nuclear program "would only deepen its isolation." Speaking in New York while attending the United Nations General Assembly meeting she said: "We strongly urge the North to reconsider these steps and come back immediately into compliance with its obligations."
Rice seemed to be determined not to give up on reaching an agreement with the Asian state, telling a reporter that the talks were "by no means" dead. "We have been through ups and downs in this process before but I think the important thing is that this is a six-party process." Rice has already held talks with her Chinese and South Korean counterparts who were also attending the UN meeting.
On Thursday German newspapers voice their concern about the re-emergence of the North Korean nuclear threat and some speculate on whether the return of belligerence is a sign of a power struggle in Pyongyang.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The Stalinist dictatorship can only continue to exist if the pressures from inside and outside are reasonably equal. If the attention from outside were to disappear then the regime would be eaten up by domestic problems. It always comes down to a question of existence."
"It seems that the country is now going through an important transformation. The negotiated disarmament program is being sacrificed and uranium enrichment is being restarted. North Korea is making itself dangerous again, thus destroying the progress achieved in negotiations over the past six years."
"Why? There is no obvious answer to so much irrationalism and from the outside it is hard to understand the motives. It is obvious that the outrageous provocations have something to do with the credible reports about the poor health of Kim Jong Il. If Kim is really not recovering or is even already dead, then the North Korea that will be unleashed on the world will be marked by power struggles and wild survival tactics. The restarting of the nuclear program would be a central part of any claim to power. Whoever has the bomb has the power. The country is once again becoming one of the world's problem cases."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Once again there is confirmation that an agreement with the totalitarian regime in North Korea is never irrevocable. So it is not completely surprising that the international nuclear watchdogs' seals and surveillance equipment have been removed at the Yongbyon nuclear plant and that IAEA inspectors are no longer allowed access. The regime has been trying for quite a while to wriggle out of the nuclear disarmament agreement it made 18 months ago following the six-party negotiations. It is not yet clear if the message to the IAEA that North Korea is reactivating its plant that produces plutonium is aggressive posturing or really marks a restart of the nuclear weapons program."
"It could be that the opportunities for further negotiations are not exhausted. It will only be possible to trust North Korea when the regime declares all of its nuclear activities and allows them to be inspected by the IAEA."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"Amid the tug-of-war with Iran, the fact that there is another nuclear dispute was almost forgotten: the one with North Korea. This seemed to lose its contentiousness after a deal was signed last year that would put a stop to North Korea's nuclear program and Pyongyang presented a list of its technical abilities and then made the big gesture of blowing up a cooling tower. All of this seemed proof that diplomacy had actually achieved something."
"Now the country is showing UN inspectors the door and announcing that the nuclear facility at Yongbyon will be reactivated. North Korea is waiting for what it sees as an important trade-off that it was promised for stopping its nuclear program. The US government had assured the regime in Pyongyang that it would be removed from its 'terror list.' Washington refused to take this step which would have cleared the way for the promised economic aid. North Korea's new escalation of tensions does not mean a change of strategy. It is the continuation of a concept that has proved successful up until now: For the regime the nuclear option was and is the only instrument that can force the Americans to make concessions. It is, therefore, doubtful if North Korea would ever give up this means of applying pressure."
-- Siobhán Dowling, 11:45 a.m. CET