The Bush administration may have one of its foreign-policy victories slipping through its fingers. Less than three months after destroying the vent at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, the North Koreans have kicked out IAEA inspectors and started work on rebuilding its breeder system. Pyongyang has rejected the deal that had them on the brink of denuclearization:
North Korea has expelled U.N. monitors from its plutonium-making nuclear plant and plans to start reactivating it next week, rowing back from a 2007 deal to scrap its atomic bomb program, officials said on Wednesday.
The Stalinist state said on Friday it was working to restart the Yongbyon atomic complex it had been dismantling since last November under a disarmament-for-aid agreement with five powers.
Olli Heinonen, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s head of non-proliferation safeguards, told a closed meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation board of governors that monitors were forced to leave the plutonium facility this week.
“There are no more seals and surveillance equipment in place at the (plutonium) reprocessing facility,” IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said, referring to the most proliferation-sensitive installation at Yongbyon.
How long will it take to reactivate Yongbyon? The IAEA says it will take several months, but they won’t be around to check the progress. Not only did Kim Jong-Il kick them out, but the DPRK has removed all of the IAEA surveillance equipment as well. Even the Iranians didn’t go that far in repudiating the UN agency and its jurisdiction.
What could this mean? It may just be a negotiating ploy. Kim was incensed when the Bush administration refused to immediately remove North Korea from the terrorist-supporting-nations list, which severely restricts its ability to sell arms internationally. American negotiators asked Pyongyang to be patient and to comply with the rest of the agreement to get removed from that list, but Kim has other ideas. He may also want a better deal for energy, especially heating fuel, with winter fast approaching.
The other possibility is that Kim is no longer in charge, and the military wants to keep its nukes. That seems unlikely, as the military has to understand that it would never withstand a war with the other forces in the six-party talks, but we know little about the military leadership of the DPRK. Are they rational, or are they even more delusional than Kim Jong-Il?
We should get some of these answers in the next few weeks. The rebuilding time for Yongbyon will undoubtedly be filled with diplomatic efforts to get North Korea back into the agreement, perhaps with more fuel oil and lowered sanctions as a carrot. That should give everyone a look at who is running the shop in Pyongyang, and what that means for engagement in the Hermit Kingdom.