The Second North Korean Nuclear Crisis- Part II


[Part I of Chan-yeol Yu's commentary on North Korea appeared in last week's October 22 issue.]

III. Different Postures Among Related Powers

No one disputes that North Korea unilaterally breached the Agreed Framework. Every responsible liberal democracy believes its uranium enrichment to be a clear violation of the Agreed Framework, not to mention an outright contravention of the IAEA safeguard measures and the Declaration of North-South Korean Denuclearization.

For the last couple of years, however, administrations in the US and the ROK have analyzed Pyongyang's nuclear intentions quite differently. Washington sees the buildup as a military matter, but Seoul has traditionally seen it in terms of politics. Surprisingly, President Roh Moo-Hyun completely reversed his position, and that of his predecessor, Kim Dae-Jung, at the US-ROK summit meeting on May 14, 2003, in Washington. Pyongyang, he admitted, could use the nuclear weapons for military purposes unexpectedly.  Additionally, he announced that: extra measures would be taken if North Korea's nuclear arms cannot be eradicated through peaceful means; the Kim Jong-Il regime is hard to trust; nuclear issues and North-South Korean economic exchanges would be linked; and South Korea would actively participate in halting the dangerous, illegal and inhumane problems of narcotics trafficking and missile exports.

When Pyongyang made public its will to cancel the freeze of nuclear reactors by forcing out the IAEA inspection personnel, and later disclosed that it would withdraw from the NPT, the response from world governments and mass media was swift and uncompromising.  There is disagreement, though, over how to resolve the problem. The US demanded that North Korea abolish the nuclear facilities in question quickly, transparently and verifiably. Only after this has been done will Washington discuss compensation. In January of 2003, President Bush called this a "bold approach," a notably different tone from the earlier stance where there would be no compensation for abandoning the nuclear gamble[r1] . Washington proposed multilateral talks among all the parties with a stake in the issue. Washington opposes direct US-DPRK dialogue in order to counter Pyongyang's rhetorical tactic of reducing the issue to a bilateral one. Nevertheless, US policy has slightly tilted toward "tailored containment" as the situation has progressed. Japanese Deputy Chief Secretary of the Cabinet, Abe Shinzo, demonstrated Tokyo's clear intention to join in American sanctions by announcing it might bar a North Korean cargo ship from using one of its ports.

South Korea has been opposed to most of the hawkish measures for fear of inciting the reckless regime and igniting an uncontrollable conflict. Seoul wanted to continue providing heavy fuel oil when Washington cut off the supply, observe Pyongyang's response, seek dialogue rather than implement punitive measures and induce a peaceful resolution through negotiation. Seoul had hoped it might play the role of mediator in the US-DPRK conflict rather than lean towards one side or the other, and it expected Russia and China to play a similar role. As explained, however, President Roh's stance totally reversed, and the new position of the South Korean government is anticipated to be in harmony with that of the United States. Contrarily, Russia and China object to punishment or containment. Both underscore that a package deal-the denuclearization of the peninsula, the return to the Agreed Framework guaranteeing Pyongyang's security, and economic assistance-is the optimal scheme, by way of dialogue and negotiation.

IV. Options and Prospects

Prospects for resolution are opaque. As was true in the 1993-94 nuclear crisis, appeals and diplomatic pressure from international organizations in the form of resolutions from the IAEA and the UN General Assembly are not expected to phase Pyongyang. UN Security Council consensus seems difficult in light of the intricately differing positions of the member states. The US unilaterally demands unconditional denuclearization. The problem is that Pyongyang regards the American position as too shaming, on one hand and as an unacceptable, dangerous proposal, on the other.

The US, returning from its Middle East focus, is trying once again a soft diplomatic approach by providing the opportunity for negotiation, giving the rogue regime a chance to repent after observing the harsh destiny of Saddam's Ba'athist government.

The advantage of multilateral talks is to raise international understanding regarding North Korea's illegitimate behavior and to make it harder for Pyongyang to breach the agreement when a decision is made. This is why the United States initially accepted the format of tripartite talks and currently promotes six-party talks. Thus, it is important to secure Chinese cooperation. China has been the largest source of support, including food aid, for North Korea since 1992. China did cut back its aid in 1994, as an expression of discontent with the nuclear entanglement at the time. Chinese pressure of this kind was an important backdrop to the US-DPRK Agreed Framework in 1994 and could be so again.