Paul Schulte was interviewed by the Voice of Russia's Kudashkina Ekaterina about North Korea's nuclear program.
Paul Schulte: There has been an up-and-down pessimism, as I have explained, about disputes over a number of things. There was a severe crisis in 1994 while Korea was inside the nuclear non-proliferation treaty but talking of leaving it; they did leave it in 2003 and then the six-party talks were set up as a way of keeping some diplomatic connection with North Korea over its nuclear program. They had ups and downs over which side was delivering on their obligations but the North reentered the talks and began to take steps to decommission their nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, they blew up the cooling tower, but suspicions grew about the fact that they had alternative nuclear production facilities using the centrifuge facilities associated with Iran. So, the talks broke down over verification and it was not possible, mostly for America or South Korea, to accept that the statements coming from the North were true.
So, in December 2008 the six-party discussions on verification disablement and energy assistance ended in stalemate, they just could not reach an agreement on verification, and after that heavy fuel shipments to North Korea stopped because the verification deal was falling through and then in 2009 to show displeasure the North Koreans did a missile test and did another nuclear weapons test and so we were moving back. And then in 2010 you had sinking of South Korean warship and an artillery bombardment at Yeonpyeong Island and in the course of last year 50 South Koreans were killed there by a sort of calibrated aggression from the North.
And now the North has decided that it is time to make up a bit, to try and reconnect, to look for other deals that may be possible and in the meantime international humanitarian concern is beginning in any case to increase supplies of food aid because there has been a bad harvest in North Korea and their economic mismanagement is worsening – they have a serious lack of nutrition. In the past the North Koreans have spoken about major American concessions in terms of ending their alliance with South Korea and reducing what the North Koreans perceive as American hostility towards their regime; they might also have demanded preconditions in terms of fuel oil assistance, food assistance because the North Korean economy is going through one of its frequent problem periods, famine may be looming, they might have asked for that; they might have asked for statements that the Americans and others would not press on verification matters which the North Koreans have been reluctant to comply with in the past. There are a number of conditions that they might have spoken about.
The other thing, they might have tried to push was some change to the UN resolution which condemned the launch of an alleged space satellite rocket which the rest of the world saw as an intermediate-range nuclear delivery system; they have regarded that as unacceptable for the UN Security Council to condemn them for doing this and they had said at that time in an extremely strong language that they would never ever return to the six-party talks as it was an unacceptable insult to the pride of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Do we need to understand this statement like a major concession to the international community on the part of North Korea?
Paul Schulte: I think we need to understand it in a rhythm of the North Korean provocation and climb down. They threaten regularly all sorts of things, but the reality is of trying to hold their country together with its disasters, economic prospects and to try and extract the maximum concessions from the international community which leads them back to the negotiating table but being at the negotiating table does not necessarily means very much in terms of substantive productive change. I think they will talk.
They will talk and what could be our major arguments at those negotiations?
Paul Schulte: There is the question of how united the six-party talks are. Clearly, one should remember that they are between countries whose negotiating goals are not identical as the US and DPRK are the main negotiating tier, but China, Japan, Russia and the Republic of Korea in the South are all members. The Chinese position is becoming increasingly important and it is not clear that the Chinese want to press the North Koreans in a way that other people might. I think the North Koreans have seen this and are benefiting from it. They are increasingly taking advantage of this kind of protecting role that the Chinese have offered.
How could the Chinese stance be explained?
Paul Schulte: I think what they fundamentally do not want to see is the collapse of North Korea in a way which would lead to unification of the Korean Peninsula led by the South allied with the US and this is something the Chinese do not seem to see at all in their interest, therefore they want to do anything which could lead to an early instability or collapse of the bizarre dynastic communist regime in Pyongyang. Therefore, we see the Chinese were particularly reluctant for the international community to draw technical conclusions about the sinking of this South Korean warship, the Cheonan: frogmen and submarines have found scraps of the torpedo which had sunk it and the torpedo had been proven to be sold in North Korea; nobody else was seen as a tool credibly responsible for sinking this ship out of the blue, but still the Chinese did not want any strong finger blame pointing at Pyongyang – so, that is the kind of position the Chinese have taken.
What is the position of Japan?
Paul Schulte: Japan would like stability, the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; it knows it cannot get it, it is not in a particularly strong position – all it can do is offer, when the conditions are right, assistance with fuel oil and food from time to time when the rest of the international community is prepared to give it. I think the Japanese are appalled at having to live so close to such an unstable regime with nuclear weapons.
Do you think that a transition of power in the North Korean leadership could get things moving?
Paul Schulte: It could, although in the past one must remember that the change in leadership between Kim Il-Sung and his son, the present incumbent, did not actually lead to any discontinuity in the nuclear discussions. So, I think two things are true: one thing is that the succession in this kind of authoritarian system is always difficult, it is a period of tension and uncertainty, but also, the second point, in the past whatever else has been disagreed and leading to suspicion and tension, the overwriting nuclear policy and negotiating, and, I guess, extortion policy of the regime has gone forward uninterrupted, so there is enough consensus on how to do that between the senior leadership that the North Korean negotiations do not seem to change and their position does not change very much when the supreme leader changes over.
Which means that we are back to where we have started?
Paul Schulte: Yes, we are back to deeply divided peninsula with a regime in the North which has very few bargaining cards except the threat of its nuclear weapons which is not huge in number, they have been estimated to be between 6 and 14 and no credible long-ranged delivery system, but still it is a terrifying potential which concentrates the attention of the world. The question is how to manage that, to prevent a catastrophic regime’s failure, to prevent tensions on the peninsula leading to war which, even if non-nuclear, would be exceptionally destructive because the South Korean capital is so close to North Korea, it would be largely destroyed by the North Korean artillery emplacement in the hills. So, nobody wants war but nobody knows how to get out of the impasse with the regime which simply cannot compete in any normal measure of human wealth or popularity and has to remain in a kind of permanently paranoid position to the rest of the world. Anything that can relax that is desirable but it may not be very dependable.
As an expert, what would you suggest?
Paul Schulte: I would suggest listening very closely to what the North Koreans are saying and I think the Americans are already doing that, there has been a North Korean senior envoy in New York at the end of the last month. We are examining what can be done to resume the talks, even though they do not lead to any substantive changes, as I said, they will reduce tensions; find some ways of relieving the distress and famine of North Korean people, do not indulge the regime into thinking the world will accept its nuclear weapons activities but keep the dialog going and just hope to manage this 20-30-year crisis until the regime transforms or collapses.