A Reminder from the Near East: Don't Forget North Korea

April 2, 2003 Topic: Security Tags: Business

A Reminder from the Near East: Don't Forget North Korea

The danger with being regarded as the world's hyperpower is that the rest of the world can come to rely on that nation's good offices unduly.

 The danger with being regarded as the world's hyperpower is that the rest of the world can come to rely on that nation's good offices unduly, become rather more passive in the conducting of their own policy and that this can lead to consequences if the hyperpower (in this case, of course, the United States) comes to focus too much on another event. Few would deny that the past six months, and maybe longer, have been almost singularly dominated by the crisis, and now war, in Iraq, but only a relative few would be aware of the real threats being sounded out of northeast Asia from North Korea. While we have come to concentrate on realizing the disarmament of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, regional and security specialists fear that North Korea may already have one or two nuclear devices. Indeed, in a report in November 2002 the CIA claimed that by mid-decade North Korea could be producing two or more bombs each year. This is perhaps not a time, especially for the Bush Administration, to overlook other arenas too much. 

Despite its impressive parades, both military and festive, and its bombast, North Korea is a hungry and desperately poor nation. Aid agencies estimate that up to two million North Koreans may have died from starvation since the mid-1990s. Yet, this final bastion of the Cold War continues to pretend to its tiny number of visitors that it is a thriving communitarian and collectivist society, its agricultural system thriving -in its own way- and the process of reunification only held back by fifty years of U.S.-occupation in the south. Remember, hungry nations can often be among the most dangerous, before we even add the equation of nuclear weapons. 

Last October, during a visit to Pyongyang, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted the North Korean authorities by indicating that the U.S. had information that they had a secret uranium-enriching program, in defiance of the 1994 Agreed Framework. Under this agreement, the United States would help North Korea build two lightwater nuclear power reactors, for civilian energy purposes. In the meantime, before becoming operational, the U.S. would supply the North with fuel aid. Normally, in such circumstances, one might have expected the accused to deny the claim, but North Korea did not. Instead, the period since has seen Pyongyang engaged in a barrage of abuse leveled at the U.S. administration, the forced removal of IAEA inspectors, the country's withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the testing of ground-to-ship missiles in the Korean Sea - between the North and Japan. It is feared that Pyongyang may be about to test a longer-range missile over Japan, something it has not done since 1998 and, post-9/11, something that Japan may find it difficult to fail to actively react to. 

The last shipment of fuel aid was sent to North Korea in November. While Colin Powell has, more recently, promised to factor in food aid to North Korea during 2003; as it claimed was always intended; a tense diplomatic stand-off currently ensues whereby Russia, China, both good friends of President Kim, and South Korea -including the recently inaugurated president Roh Moo-hyun- insist on the commencement of bilateral U.S.-North Korean talks. Washington itself prefers to institute something much more multilateral and has, these past few months in particular, attempted to incorporate Moscow and Beijing much more actively in this process. 

For the White House, these are very delicate and tricky moments in its policy towards northeast Asia. The more hawkish candidate for president in December's South Korean elections, Lee Hoi-chang, was defeated by the much more dovish Mr. Roh. This, itself, a testament and further example of the apparent benefits of proclaiming a more ‘critical' anti-U.S. (or anti-Bush Administration) manifesto: although the acquittal of two American servicemen in an American military court following the crushing to death of two Korean girls by their armored vehicle, did not help much either. Mr. Koizumi's government in Tokyo, cognizant of the current international environment, is not ruling out the nuclearization of Japan in the event of further missile tests, even if not fired across its boughs. Meanwhile, Moscow and Beijing appear unwilling to put very much pressure on Pyongyang to, at the very least, tone down its rhetoric towards Washington - perhaps in some way punishing the United States for going it alone on Iraq. Of course, all these regional actors want a nuclearized Korean peninsula no more than the United States, but the debate has become rather lost in procedure in recent weeks. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Korean peninsula is, once again, being classified as the most dangerous place on the planet. 

The Bush Administration is correct in its assertion that direct talks would, at this stage, only reward the side that has withdrawn from earlier compacts. The dialogue and attitudes emanating from Pyongyang, equally, cannot give the western world much confidence that any talks, leading to any re-formulated compacts, will necessarily lead to any better behavior on the part of North Korea. It is surely accepted by most that this is a mercurial leadership that cannot be trusted on very much, but such recognition doesn't solve the problem of what to do next.  

Intriguingly, whilst the international community has been hanging on the every word of Messrs. Blix and El Baradei in respect of Iraq, early this year the latter himself declared North Korea to be in breach of its earlier undertakings and, at a meeting of the Board of Governors of the IAEA on February 12, 2003, it was recommended that the matter should be referred to the UN Security Council. North Korea has, however, reacted by suggesting that such a move would be tantamount to a declaration of war (not the only matter, they suggest, that would yield such). The opposition of Moscow and Beijing apart, this appears to have persuaded Washington to admit that now is not quite the right moment to take the matter so far -the Security Council could, if it wanted, impose economic sanctions on North Korea. 

One of the problems, in international policy and security formulation and assistance that the Bush Administration may now be confronted with, at least until next year's elections, is a relative unwillingness on the part of Russia and China to assist them very significantly in defusing crises like the very scary one developing in the Korean peninsula. Unilateralism in Iraq will not occur without its consequences and any perception, in any post-war environment, that those who have opposed military action will be ‘shut out' from the contracts will make such powers even less likely to multilateralize a process like the one over North Korea. So, irrespective of the outcome of the war, I expect difficult months ahead for the Bush Administration in the realization of, if only, its security objectives. 

So where do we go from here?  

I would suggest, firstly, that Washington not be panicked into actively responding to these continued provocations from Pyongyang. I doubt that they will cease, but even many of those uttered have been quite swiftly and subsequently contradicted by their officials. Work should be undertaken to ensure that Pyongyang continues to be further isolated by such rhetoric from its strongest allies and that Washington continues to engage bilaterally with both Moscow and Beijing on the matter. The United States will have to make it abundantly clear -this is better done quietly and more privately- that any attack on Japan would be regarded as an attack on the United States - I suspect this has already been done. Washington should continue its present policy of not supplying the North with fuel aid. North Korea's demand for the mothballing of its Yongbyon nuclear power plant in return only for the conclusion of a non-aggression pact from the United States should not be agreed to at this stage. Meanwhile, the United States should continue to pressurize China to encourage the North to go down the economic liberalization path from where, during the autumn of 2002, encouraging buds -like the creation of a free trade zone at Sinuiju, on the border with China- had been reported to have begun to appear. 

2003 should not be a year for dramatic shifts in American policy towards North Korea. It is precisely this that Pyongyang's threats hope to feed. Instead, these are moments, as far as the construction of U.S. policy towards the Korean peninsula is concerned, for quiet reflection, to allow the storm in the Middle East to, at least, die down a little, before shifting attention to the region to a far greater extent in 2004. 2003 is, therefore, a moment for soothing the current fears/slight antagonisms in the South. Besides, the international community will, sooner or later, be multilateralized again - something even conservative Republicans should find a significant need for. In return, all that we can hope for is that North Korea does not attempt, in the coming weeks/months, to do something stupid. This cannot be guaranteed, but, at least, if it does, we can rest assured that a very powerful and global coalition against any such action could very easily be constructed.