Monday, March 19, 2012

Why we must go on... even with Pyongyang

The hard-won deal with North Korea is already in peril - Pyongyang has announced its intentions to launch a satellite to commemorate Kim Il Sung's centennial and the US sees this as a violation of the moratorium on missile testing. Nonetheless, the negotiations must go on because the opportunity is ripe to set Northeast Asia on a course for greater stability.

Evaluating the merit of the recent food-for-nukes deal has divided analysts.

In a Washington Post op-ed on March 8, Andrew Natsios censured the "Leap-day Deal" for sending a message that encourages Pyongyang to build more nukes and divert aid with impunity. Chris Nelson criticized Natsios' positions but failed to produce a defense for the deal itself.

I am in favor of the deal and here are reasons why:

The moratorium on activities at the Yongbyon nuclear facility is a great start and if the US stays in the agreement, there will be follow-up negotiations. Some analysts were critical of the fact that the deal narrowly specified the Yongbyon facility when there are probably other underground nuclear facilities. But we cannot monitor facilities that we do not know about, thus a more expansive agreement would have simply acted as a harbinger for future conflict.

Based on accounts of high-profile defectors from North Korea, it is likely that Pyongyang is actually concerned for the wellbeing of the North Korean people (in so far as not wanting them to all die) - this will bring North Korea back to the negotiating table because Washington's nutritional assistance package of 240,000 tons will not be sufficient to ensure food security through the lean months between harvests. When negotiations restart, there is room to expand upon the standing agreement.

Monitoring, which State Department officials and many analysts mention on a regular basis as a key obstacle to providing food aid, has never been a big problem - not because Pyongyang doesn't siphon off the aid that comes in the country, but because having surplus food in the market will have a positive outcome. As Chris Green assessed in his recent article on Sino-NK:
This is one oft-unspoken fact that muddies the waters of the 'aid transparency debate'; namely, that giving grain to the North Korean state ends up diluting prices in the [markets], something that is good for ordinary consumers
More importantly, it is in the moral and strategic interests of the United States to help build a North Korea that is not suffering from chronic malnutrition. The long term social consequences of exposure to starvation will prevent the North Korean people from engaging in activities that contribute to social change or effectively participate in reconstruction if the country opens up to the world. If this occurs, then the cost of reconstruction falls on South Korea and invariably the United States. Therefore, Washington should begin investing in the future that it wants to see today.

Negotiations must not only go on, but pick up the pace. As North Korea's economic and political ties with China and the Russian Federation deepen, Washington's economic importance to Pyongyang will diminish. More importantly, should Washington leave North Korea without means to better secure and distribute food, the consequences will yield an immense human cost that will continue to undermine the region's stability long into the future.

Read my full article on Asia Times

Friday, March 16, 2012

Economic Nationalism Unbound

Two things jumped out at me this week:

1) Viktor Orban has been forwarding Hungary's sovereignty as a focal point of his premiership for quite a while, but the recent denunciation of EU 'colonialism' at a rally takes the ongoing political and economic crisis to a whole new level.

Supporters of Orban demand that the EU release the funds that have been denied to Hungary due to Budapest's budget deficit - this comes after Orban was personally chastised by Brussels and Strasbourg for reining back the freedom of the press and attempting to subordinate the independent central bank under executive authority.

The consequences of living in a community of nations have dawned on the Hungarians - and the anti-Europe rhetoric from center-right Fidesz and the far-right Jobbik parties show how nationalism is still well and alive in Central Europe today.

2) I watched an animated video created by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) on the issue of Japanese trade and food security:

It highlighted Japan's declining domestic food production as a key problem that also created related problems in health and national security. What struck me as interesting was how the video asserts that the protein-rich western diet was causing the Japanese nation to be less healthy. The video concluded that only by returning to a traditional Japanese diet could the Japanese people build a better society (including having more children as evident at the end of the video).

While I agree with the notion that the global obsession with colossal output and consumption of meat is economically and ecologically undesirable - I was amused by the nationalistic themes embedded in the presentation. In particular, the video does not attempt to make a distinction between the cuisine and the contents of the food. For example, a hamburger is going to be distinctly western regardless of the size of the meat patty - if the problem is the over-consumption of protein, then the core of the issue is the portion size, not the way it is prepared.

These are two very interesting cases of nationalism rising to challenge the ramifications of globalization - countries are bound to have their financial and legal decisions checked by inter-regional political and economic bodies and cultures (including eating habits) are going to change. Their next steps will reveal whether we as a single global community can move forward into a new social paradigm or stagnate...

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A New Hope?

As the follow-up negotiations to finalize the nutritional assistance to North Korea is taking place, several analysts have weighed in their opinions on the "Leap-day deal." Most people have taken a negative position, citing the agreement's narrow focus on the Yongbyon facility and the questionable act of using humanitarian assistance for leverage.

However, it is important to point out that the recent negotiations have produced opportunities for long-term engagement and a chance to reduce tensions in the region.

At the least, the infamous Yongbyon facility will be closed. Many point out that North Korea probably has many other underground facilities that support the nuclear weapons program, but Yongbyon is probably Pyongyang's largest and most productive enrichment site. With enough output to produce a nuclear weapon on an annual basis, closing down the facility will be a huge step forward. 

Furthermore, now that the food crisis and the nuclear issue are linked, Pyongyang will be pressed hard to make further concessions in their nuclear program in order to gain more food. Although some experts, like Marcus Noland, do not believe that Pyongyang accepted the US deal out of concern for its people, considering the socio-economic conditions, it is likely that North Korea's sudden change in position is tied to its desperation for assistance. 240,000 tons of nutritional assistance will only last so long. When the North Koreans come back for more food, more concessions may be negotiated.

These are issues that both North Koreans and Americans can potentially work together to resolve - Washington wants Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and Pyongyang wants Washington to help it recover from the food crisis. Andrei Lankov is adamant that North Korea will never give up nuclear weapons, but as long as talks move in a direction that would reduce tensions and establish a firmer line of communication between Pyongyang and Washington, the current negotiations are well worth the moral and strategic risks.

Of course Washington is on a limited time frame. As North Korea's ties with Russia and China deepen, the US economic leverage over the isolated and hungry state will decrease. More importantly, the US should not delay the delivery of humanitarian assistance as to prevent further trauma on the North Korean people. Much is at stake.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

US-DPRK leap?

On February 29, 2012, the DPRK and the United States simultaneously announced the results of their third exploratory talks. Both sides chose to focus on different aspects of the negotiations in their announcement, but in general, Pyongyang and Washington appear to have landed on the same page.

The agreements were surprisingly extensive, covering a moratorium on long-range missile launches, cessation of nuclear weapons tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon and permission for IAEA inspectors to return to North Korea.

In return, the United States promised to finalize negotiations on 240,000 metric tons of nutritional aid. The addition of "nutritional assistance" in the meeting is somewhat surprising because Washington has always maintained rhetorical distance between the nuclear issue and humanitarian assistance - as many analysts suspected, the deal appears to have been reached mainly via US using humanitarian assistance as leverage.

The agreement to provide 240,000 metric tons of nutritional aid is significant because it means that the North Korean leadership was willing to concede on the issue of being given the remaining 330,000 tons of grain from the 2005 agreement. According to Marcus Noland, this concession suggests that there is an individual or group making decisive political decisions in Pyongyang, which in of itself was not a certainty after the death of Kim Jong-il.

While US negotiators were wary of making assertive comments on recommencing the Six-party Talks, the North Korean statement chose to underscore the possibility of restarting the talks, lifting sanctions and acquiring a light water reactor - clearly looking for a deal similar to the 1994 Agreed Framework.

The key area of concern here is the linkage between food aid and the nuclear issue. If this becomes the established precedence, then humanitarian assistance will be shamelessly flaunted as a political tool - and the North Koreans will have a positive incentive to engage in provocative behavior to induce food aid.

Moreover, the linkage between food and the nuclear program will create an incentive for Washington to continue the supply of aid even if the North Koreans are abusing the distribution, as long as the negotiations on the nuclear program makes progress - humanitarian assistance will be taken hostage by North Korea's willingness to talk.

The agreement specified that North Korea will halt nuclear activities at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, which leaves nuclear facilities that the US and the IAEA do not know about (if they exist) free to continue uranium enrichment. In 2010 Siegfried Hecker was shown the uranium enrichment program at Yongbyon and he was shocked to find that the facility was capable of producing a weapon's worth of highly enriched uranium every year. While this infamous facility will halt operations, just as Hecker was not expecting a massive enrichment program in 2010, we may stumble upon an underground nuclear facility in the near future. Furthermore, Pyongyang probably retains enough plutonium right now for four to twelve atomic bombs.

While the recent agreement could definitely open way for a considerable breakthrough, bringing the regional players back to Six-party Talks and forestall mass starvation in North Korea, as with all agreements with Pyongyang, this one stands on thin ice. As the moratorium does not include a specific timetable, Pyongyang may well be stalling for time and aid.