There are big hopes for next week’s 6-party talks with North Korea. Christopher Hill, key negotiator for the US, has said that the US is hoping for progress.

It’s likely that this progress will happen, and that the Koreans will get what they’ve been seeking, which is aid. It is also very likely that the financial sanctions against imposed on the regime in 2005, will be adjusted. The US has engaged in separate talks for those sanctions, but those talks are certainly linked to the nuclear issue. After all, it was after the October test and the December talks, that the US was ready to have serious dialogue about the financial sanctions.

While Hill is being careful in what he’s saying and has made it clear that specific concessions on North Korea’s side are a requirement, there have been reports that North Korea will be more lenient in accepting those concessions. And accepting US aid.

What does this all mean? If the talks next week are successful, then the Koreans would have won a double victory. Not only are they now able in nuclear technology (and could re-ignite any program that gets slowed down), they could potentially be recipients of very needed foreign aid.

The nuclear program, having yielded results, can be stalled for this aid. And rebooted if that aid stops.

Sometimes hard power can still produce results.

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On the eve of US-North Korea financial talks, which have been tentatively set to take place on the week starting January 22, the idea of a second nuclear test by the DPRK is being talked about yet again.

Kyodo news agency quoted Japanese lawmaker Taku Yamasaki quoting North Korean official Song Il-ho as saying that a second nuclear test would depend on US actions.

The Koreans have an interest in upping pressure on the US to succumb to North Korean demands, including those of lifting financial sanctions. Kim Jong-il’s government has no leverage in the nuclear talks, except for the country’s nuclear capability itself. If talks continue in deadlock — and North Korea is unwilling to make concessions — then a second nuclear test could become the only effective way to pursue the country’s interests. Right now, North Korea’s best tool is the threat of such a test.

Neither the US nor North Korea want another test to take place. A test would spell disaster for the US, with North Korea solidifying its place as a nuclear power; for North Korea, it would leave little options to further bargain and would probably be too costly for the financially depleted regime. In that sense, the threat of a test remains North Korea’s best weapon in advancing its interests in the nuclear negotiations.

Until those negotiations resume, North Korea will take every opportunity to mention a second nuclear test. While there is little probability of such a test occuring in the next few months, the threat itself adds urgency to the issue. And North Korea looks to be urgently in need of US financial cooperation.

North Korea must, however, be prudent in its rhetoric. If it speaks too belligerently, it may isolate itself further by looking un-cooperative. This is why North Korean officials often make statements, such as Song Il-ho’s, via news agencies and other officials. This way, it is always possible to refute a statement officially, if it causes too much of a stir.

Following this week’s flurry of activity around the DPRK, with suggestions of a second nuclear test, the US and North Korea have now agreed to hold financial talks later this month.

The question of financial sanctions imposed in 2005 played a big role in the failure of the six party nuclear negotiations held in December. It was reported that the North Koreans were not ready to move negotiations along unless financial sanctions were lifted. The US position was that there was no linkage between the financial sanctions and North Korea’s nuclear program.

The forthcoming talks are good news to both parties. The Koreans have been after $24 million worth in assets, which have been frozen at a Macau bank. The US wants North Korea to halt its nuclear program and if the issue of financial sanctions is resolved, it will be closer to its goals.

However, the news does not mean that the financial dispute has been resolved. The US is not ready to lift sanctions without conditions. If the US was to lift the sanctions without negotiations, that would mean a second political victory for North Korea (after its successful nuclear test in October). But the announcement is a victory of sorts for someone as its no coincidence that the talks have been announced after an eventful week.

In the past few days there’s been reports of activity in North Korea, with concerns over the possibility of a second nuclear test by the DPRK. In response, the Koreans have said the US is carrying out training exercises on hitting “major” targets in the DPRK.

A likely scenario of what actually is going on is that the US is verifying the reports and is scouting information on North Korea’s strategic position. Obviously, North Korea would not want to admit that it may (or may not) be planning another test, because that makes up the strength of its negotiating position in the six party talks which will have to resume eventually.

The fact that the possibility of a test is being mentioned and that the Koreans are responding, means that something is up. While its impossible to say with certainty that the DPRK is actually planning a nuclear test, the fact that Japanese Prime Minister Abe has warned against such action means that the North Koreans have the technological capability to carry out another test.

South Korea’s Foreign Minister Song and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have also warned the DPRK.

Song has also said that the six party talks must resume soon. The Foreign Minister declined to offer a strict deadline, which means that the six parties are in the process of negotiating the next round of negotiations. That would explain why the Koreans would increase activity as a show of what’s at stake and the reminder of its October test. The US would also show reveal its capabilities by explicitly flying over North Korea.

The parties want to avoid the deadlock characteristic of December’s talks, the first in over a year.

All things considered, a nuclear test by the DPRK is unlikely before the next round of negotiations. If those fail, however, that may change. The DPRK has been cornered with effective financial sanctions that it desperately wants lifted. Those sanctions likely played a big part in the October 9 test and may still play a part in further developments in the nuclear standoff.

To watch in 2007

January 1, 2007

Afghanistan. Often forgotten because of the headlines from Iraq, Afghanistan is not a solved affair. Only Kabul is somewhat stable, with Kandahar and other cities remaining unsafe.

Global Warming. Scientists have been talking about it for years, and Al Gore has now popularized it with a documentary film . Yet there is still no clear policies on tackling this global issue. The US has not returned to the Kyoto framework (and hasn’t offered a good alternative) and Canada’s new government has been defiant in backing out of the Kyoto protocol. Meanwhile, the arctic is shrinking.

Iran. Will the Republic bow to pressure and halt uranium enrichment? And if not, what will Ahmadinejad do next? Iran has potential to play a vital regional role in stabilizing Iraq. It also may face opposition from the US.

Iraq. Will British and US occupying forces leave Iraq and leave it to Iraqi forces to provide security?

Lebanon. The standoff in Beirut continues, with protesters vowing to stay on. Will Prime Minister Siniora give in? Will protesters patience run out?

Mexico. Mexico will spend 2007 with new president Felipe Calderon. Will he be able to solve the mess of Oaxaca? Will state violence be halted or will the President disregard Mexican citizens in favor of Governor Ruiz?

North Korea. The DPRK has vowed to continue to provide a strong defense of the country and called on the 1.1. million army to be prepared to “mercilessly defeat any invasion of the US imperialists.” If nuclear talks don’t go well, will the Koreans test another bomb?

Palestine. Fatah and Hamas are at a stand-off, with Israel allowing arms deliveries to Fatah. Will elections take place? Will Abbas reach a deal with Olmert? What if Hamas prevails in the elections?

Russia. A presidential election is set for March 2008, yet some cynics have contended that Putin will attempt to stay in power, despite constitutional law which allows for only two terms. Putin the dictator?

Somalia. The country has lived through a lot in the last six months, with power shifting from one leadership to another, violence starting and ending. Will it stabilize in 2007?

United Nations. Ban Ki-moon enters his official duties as Secretary General of the UN. Will the troubled international body gain influence with its new face and voice? The test will be how Ban Ki-moon — a South Korean — handles the nuclear crisis in North Korea.

United States. The presidential elections are set for 2008, but candidates are already stepping up to the race. Will Senator Clinton run? Will McCain enter the race?

And everything else.

Please post omissions, like some of the obvious ones (China, Darfur, Haiti).

When the US went to war with Iraq a few years ago, it cited the possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) by Saddam Hussein’s regime as a reason for the war. Since the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, there has been no proof of WMD in the country. Luckily, the US (as well as Britain, Italy and Australia) had plans for democracy in Iraq, which culminated in the so-called Purple Revolution of the January 2005 elections. Surprisingly, those elections did not result in much violence and outlooks were positive.

But 2006 saw the violence in Iraq grow to huge proportions, some saying the country was in a state of civil war. US troops have had trouble subduing the violence and more troops may be on the way, with the Bush Administration circulating the idea of a surge option. An exit from Iraq was an option a few months ago, but it now seems farfetched.

Yet the US could use its troops elsewhere. In a major failure of US foreign policy, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in early October. While the US was busy figuring out what to do in Iraq, North Korea (DPRK) quietly brought its nuclear program to a new level. While rhetoric against the DPRK continued, it never seemed that the US was pro-active about negotiating with the alienated regime. After all, the US’ financial sanctions were working and were putting North Korea into a position of no exit. So the Korean leadership went ahead and made the US listen by detonating its nuclear weapon.

More conspicuous perhaps is the case of Iran. The Iranians have been progressing with their civilian nuclear program and are openly enriching uranium, which could very well mean that they too are developing a nuclear weapon. If the US wanted to use its military as a deterrent with Iran, it cannot, because now its troops are very much stuck in Iraq.

Furthermore, Iran is increasingly becoming an active regional player that may be needed for stability in Iraq. Iran has already met with Iraqi President Talabani and has plans on co-operating with Syria to stabilize Iraq. But it also wants US forces out of the region. So any negotiations — direct or indirect — that the US has with Iran will be connected with the future of Iraq, and the US’ role in it. Not the scenario that President Bush was hoping for.

And to end the year, Iraq has executed its former president Saddam Hussein. While the conviction of Hussein is the work of an Iraqi court (and the sentencing carried out by Iraqis), it is hard to divorce the trial from US interests or US meddling. After all, why did Hussein’s dialogue with justice have to start with the Dujail trial and his crimes against humanity not include the Iran-Iraq war (where chemical weapons, likely provided by the US via Germany, were employed)? Why was Hussein in US custody until his hanging? Doesn’t that make him a Prisoner of War, as his lawyers argued on Friday? And why was Saddam Hussein treated to a dubious trial, which a leading US human rights organization has called flawed? That, of course, was the verdict of Human Rights Watch. The US President, however, seems content with the hanging citing a fair trial and as well as Iraqi rule of law.

Would the Iraqi leadership really hang its dictator during Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the the Sacrifice, when the Arabs are supposed to pardon? That would be the biggest mistake for any new government, and its hard to conceive that the sentence was carried out without US encouragement if not enticement.

The hanging itself will not change how things go in Iraq. Hussein was no longer in control. If anything, the execution may make things more difficult, as Hussein still has supporters in Iraq and the insult of hanging him on the first day of Eid al-Adha may add fire to the discontent.

And US foreign policy seems stuck on Iraq, with the US incapable of facing up to North Korea and Iran. After all, it looks like the six-party talks with North Korea will require more than what US negotiator Christopher Hill is ready to offer, and will probably require the help of China. And there seems to be no clear policy for dealing with Iran, though the US was successful in passing a UN Security Council resolution condemning Iran’s nuclear enrichment.

It was reported yesterday that the US had offered to remove North Korea from its list of states sponsoring terrorism, if the DPRK agreed to dismantle its nuclear program. With the talks failing to lead to any result, it’s clear that North Korea declined. The regime is not interested in soft power assets, but wants concrete ones like its financial operations resumed. This is why the regime insisted on the removal of financial sanctions.

Secretary General of the UN designate Ban Ki-moon commented the six-party talks of last week by saying that “the issue requires time and patience.” The South Korean politician vowed to work on resolving the crisis once he starts his new job in the UN.

Ban Ki-moon has a good point: the issue is more complicated than a week of talks can resume. After all, North Korea has won a big battle by testing its nuclear weapon. The US, on the other hand, has found an effective tool in financial sanctions. Ironically, it is because of these sanctions that the DPRK had no other avenue than to test its weapon; with the test, the talks have resumed with the US and other states willing to be in dialogue with North Korea.

Finding a way to reconciliate the two positions will be difficult, considering that both the US and North Korea have certain strategic advantages in the negotiations. It will probably be up to one of the other states in the talks to take the first big step in the negotiations by offering a significant incentive, something North Korea and the US are not prepared to do.