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Opinion:
Robert PARSONS

Robert PARSONS
International Affairs Editor

Q&A: North Korea's nuclear moratorium

Le 01-03-2012

1. How significant is this?

North Korea's latest move appears to have come out of the blue, although you can be sure that officials in Pyongyang and Washington have been working on the details for some time. North Korea has actually conceded a fair bit with this - it has agreed to moratoriums on testing both nuclear and long-range missiles and, secondly, to suspend all nuclear activities and allow the IAEA inspectors back to its reactor at Yongbyon.

The question is how intrusive the inspection regime will actually be. Will inspectors have access to the new facility for enriching uranium as well as the older plutonium site? That would be a significant step forward.

2. But it's hardly the first time we've been here, is it?

No, the six-nation talks involving North Korea have been on and off for many years. In 2005, it looked like there had been a breakthrough when North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear ambitions in return for economic aid and political concessions. But talks repeatedly stalled on the modalities of implementation.

Last year officials began discussing a resumption of the six-nation talks - involving North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan - only for Kim Jong-il to die. It is encouraging that his successor Kim Jong-un has taken this step, but not much more than that.

3. What is the problem?

After the talks stalled in 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. Then in 2009, after the failure of more talks, it conducted a second test and subsequently boasted that it had a new and modern uranium enrichment facility to match its existing plutonium facility. It is already estimated that North Korea has enough plutonium to make six nuclear weapons. The existence of this plant has aroused suspicions that there may be more hidden away - hence the US insistence on intrusive inspection regimes.

4. How close is North Korea to making a nuclear weapon?

The North Koreans have conducted ballistic missile tests but they have not been very successful and doubts remain about their ability at this stage to put the technology together. Still, the threat that they might do so is creating enormous tension in the region and threatens to ignite a nuclear arms race.

5. What chance is there then that the six-party talks might resume?

Hillary Clinton has made it clear that the US needs first to be convinced of North Korea's sincerity - as does South Korea. Pyongyang has done this sort of thing before only to withdraw from the talks later, revealing that all along its nuclear programme has been progressing at speed.

It's interesting that this time the North Koreans don't seem to be demanding too much from the Americans - just 240,000 tonnes of food - and that comes with an inspection regime to make sure it doesn't go to feeding party functionaries.

6. Is there any reason to believe that things might be different this time?

Well, who knows? Everything is so opaque when you're dealing with North Korea. There's a new leader, so perhaps there is hope for a new approach. And there's no doubt that North Korea is suffering from an acute food shortage. That said, the nuclear programme is Pyongyang's most effective card - it doesn't really have much else to bargain with.

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