The last week or so has seen an interesting development with regard to North Korea (even if the image above is rather retro now).
As part of the Valentine’s eve agreement, North Korea is required to declare all its nuclear activities. The US has previously insisted that the North Koreans must confess to three programmes: plutonium production, a centrifuge enrichment programme and assistance to Syria.
The ‘draft declaration’, submitted towards the end of last year, only makes mention of the former and the DPRK vehemently denies the existence of the latter two.
And so, in spite of Chris Hill’s world record attempt for accruing airmiles, the process stalled.
Then, last week, it came out that North Korea and the US had reached a tentative agreement on how to proceed. The North Koreans would submit their plutonium declaration ‘officially’ (and allow it to be verified) and “acknowledge” US concerns about their enrichment programme and assistance to Syria.
Since then repeated press reports have added little to this basic picture, except to confirm that Chris Hill has successfully sold the plan to his political masters.
As far as I can see, there are broadly three possible scenarios that are consistent with these recent developments:
Scenario 1: North Korea never had a centrifuge programme or gave nuclear assistance to Syria
This scenario is oddly problematic because, as many have commented before me, it is very hard to prove a negative. If the US is convinced that North Korea has experimented with centrifuges and sold Syria reactor designs, there’s no easy way for the DPRK to demonstrate the contrary.
Thus, in this scenario, North Korean innocence could derail the entire process.
Scenario 2: North Korea won’t admit to its secret activities for fear of loosing face
In this scenario the North Koreans basically did (or even still are still doing) what they are accused of but won’t admit it in public. However, they might be willing to admit it in private. I think Chris Hill may have been hinting at this when he said “North Korea has difficulty saying things publicly.”
If this is the case—and I really am speculating now—maybe the North Koreans have agreed to provide details of the enrichment programme and the Syrian deal to the US secretly. There was a lot of talk a few weeks ago that part of the declaration would be kept secret—so perhaps that’s exactly what happened.
Even though scenario 2 is the most promising, it isn’t entirely rosy.
If the North Koreans admit to a less extensive covert programme that the US believes exists then we’re back to the pantomime problem (US: You did build a pilot scale enrichment plant; DPRK: Oh, no we didn’t; US: Oh, yes you did…an excruciatingly British reference, I’m afraid.)
Scenario 3: North Korea has no intention of complying with the agreement
In this case, the DPRK simply agreed to the 13 February agreement because of the short-term expediency of energy assistance. It has no intention of giving up its nukes, or compromising any of the other, more secret elements of its nuclear programme. Its refusal to confess to its enrichment programme or help to Syria is reflective of this.
In this scenario, the whole deal is doomed… and sooner rather than later.
Crucially, for me, an indicator of which of three scenarios is correct will be the extent to which North Korea allows verification of its plutonium declaration.
The DPRK has declared less Pu than most experts think it has produced. If the North Koreans allow really intrusive measures (such as drilling into the graphite moderator to permit forensics) then that would suggest scenario 3 is wrong. If they don’t, then I’m pretty pessimistic about the fate of the deal.