By severing some of the few remaining U.S. ties with North Korea in recent days, the Bush administration appears to be trying to further isolate the Pyongyang regime over its pursuit of nuclear weapons, analysts say.
Wednesday’s suspension of a Pentagon program to recover the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean War puts an end to one of the few regular channels of face-to-face contact between Americans and North Koreans. It also cuts off a source of hard currency for the communist nation’s army, which was being paid millions to assist in the search for remains.
Also this week, the U.S. refused to renew the contract of the American executive director of an international consortium in charge of supplying energy to North Korea.
Analysts said the decision to terminate the contract of Charles Kartman, a career diplomat who had headed the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization since 2001, was probably a prelude to abandoning a light-water nuclear reactor being built on North Korea’s east coast.
“The U.S. is shutting down anything that is in any way remotely beneficial to North Korea,” said L. Gordon Flake, an expert on North Korea and head of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington.
He described this week’s moves as signs that the administration was “gearing up for the next phase” as the prospect of North Korea returning to multinational talks on its nuclear weapons program grew increasingly unlikely.
A former State Department official, who did not want to be quoted by name, said the suspension of the remains recovery program and Kartman’s termination indicated a concerted effort by the administration to tighten the screws on Pyongyang.
“They are putting all the pieces in place to shut everything down around North Korea,” he said.
Aid officials are worried that the United States might not make its annual contribution to a United Nations food drive for North Korea. The U.S. has been one of the largest suppliers of food to the impoverished nation, last year providing 50,000 tons. It has not yet indicated whether it will make a pledge this year, said Anthony Banbury, Asia director of the U.N. World Food Program.
“I think there is a real split in the U.S. government on whether conditions are ripe” for a contribution this year, said Banbury, who met with reporters Friday in Seoul.
In the past, the United States has been adamant that political factors did not influence its decisions on humanitarian aid. Asked last week about food for North Korea, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the nuclear issue would have no bearing on the decision.
Nevertheless, the weapons impasse has the administration looking for new ways to pressure North Korea to resume the disarmament talks.
Having no diplomatic relations with the North and virtually no business connections, the U.S. has limited leverage. North Korea receives 80% of its energy through China, also the conduit for most of its trade. But Beijing so far has rebuffed requests by Washington to apply economic pressure on its neighbor.
It has been 11 months since the last round of six-nation talks in Beijing, and analysts believe that the one-year anniversary is something of an unspoken deadline for the parties to give up on their resumption.
Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence agencies have warned that North Korea might be preparing an underground nuclear test.
In the continuing war of words with Washington, North Korea’s only nationwide television station on Thursday night accused the Bush administration of spreading false information about Pyongyang’s intentions.
“The U.S. leadership has recently ... come out with a fabrication that there are some kind of missile tests and signs of an underground nuclear test,” the Korean Central Television Station said in a report monitored in Seoul.
North Korea has not yet made a statement on the suspension of the remains recovery project or Kartman’s termination. The moves could exacerbate tensions with Pyongyang, which has accused the U.S. of planning an invasion to overthrow the regime of Kim Jong Il. In recent months, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has denied any such intention, though she has strongly criticized Kim.
A 1994 deal under which the North’s nuclear program would be frozen in return for energy aid collapsed in 2002 with the administration accusing Pyongyang of cheating.
The centerpiece of the deal, a $6.4-billion light-water reactor project that was supposed to ease North Korea’s chronic electricity shortages, was mothballed the following year at the urging of the U.S.
Scott Snyder, a North Korea specialist with the Asia Foundation in Washington, said the administration couldn’t drop the project entirely, because of objections by South Korea and Japan, donors in the venture.
But under the deal, the U.S. is in charge of appointing the executive director.
“They couldn’t kill the project outright because that would require a consensus among the board members, so they are essentially decapitating it by getting rid of Kartman,” Snyder said.
Kartman will stay on until August under a month-to-month contract.
The reactor project has always been unpopular with the administration, which saw it as a capitulation to North Korean blackmail during the Clinton administration.
In contrast, the 9-year-old Pentagon program to recover remains from the 1950-53 Korean War had broad conservative support and survived numerous vicissitudes in U.S.-North Korea dealings.
The Pentagon cited safety concerns as its reason for suspending the program.
“These people are in very isolated positions in the field on these digs that they’re participating in ... and it is extremely difficult for them sometimes to be in proper communication,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless told a House of Representatives hearing Thursday. The recovery teams have never been allowed to carry satellite telephones.
Pentagon officials said there had been no security incidents to prompt the suspension; instead they cited an atmosphere of rising tensions in recent months over the North’s nuclear program.
One North Korea analyst based in Washington said the decision was likely to be interpreted by Pyongyang as a sign that the administration was contemplating a preemptive attack.
“In the hypothetical event that there were a military strike, any POW/MIA team would be at great risk of being held hostage,” said the analyst, who asked not to be quoted by name.
Other analysts said the suspension might have more to do with concerns that the North Korean military was pocketing too much money for helping in the recovery operations.
There have been accusations that the North was overcharging for labor; demanding expensive vehicles, equipment and gasoline; and often leading recovery teams to dubious sets of remains.
Charles L. Pritchard, a former U.S. negotiator with Pyongyang, said North Korean officials were also flown around the world on business-class tickets, put up in expensive hotels and paid to attend meetings.
“I was always aghast at how much we were paying the North Koreans,” Pritchard said. “It was kind of ironic given the Department of Defense’s attitude toward North Korea that they were one of the biggest suppliers of funds to the military.”
A similar, though more successful, program to recover remains from the Vietnam War was credited with paving the way for the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations in 1995.
Since the North Korea operation began, 220 sets of remains have been recovered; of those, 25 have been identified and returned to the families for burial, according to the Pentagon.
On Thursday, what may have been the last ceremony marking the repatriation of Korean War remains was held at the main U.S. military base in Seoul, with hundreds of dignitaries, veterans and the 27-member recovery team in attendance.
The remains, encased in flag-draped coffins for transport to a U.S. Army identification lab in Hawaii, were carried to waiting hearses as a brass band played taps.
“We’ve been doing it this way for years,” said Ron Davis, a retired Air Force officer who was on hand to represent the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “They should ask the people who lost loved ones in the Korean War before they cancel the program. It is always important to bring back the remains, no matter what the circumstances.”