Nuclear Korea

Published : Nov 03, 2006 00:00 IST

SOLDIERS IN A parade in Pyongyang to mark the country's birth anniversary. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was born on September 9, 1948. - REUTERS

SOLDIERS IN A parade in Pyongyang to mark the country's birth anniversary. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was born on September 9, 1948. - REUTERS

The adventurist nuclear test rattles the East Asian neighbourhood and provokes sanctions by the United Nations Security Council.

THE unanimous condemnation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) by the United Nations Security Council after its October 9 nuclear test has been met with defiance in Pyongyang. North Korea said that it considered the Security Council's imposition of draconian sanctions "a declaration of war". A week after its first test, there were reports that the country was preparing for another nuclear test. In early October, Pyongyang had announced that a nuclear test was imminent. At the same time, it had indicated that it was open to eleventh-hour negotiations with Washington, an offer that was spurned by the Bush administration.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry stated that the test was conducted in response to the "grave situation" created by the United States. The statement said that "supreme national security interests of the DPRK are at stake, with the Korean nation standing at the crossroads of life and death". In July this year, the Security Council passed a resolution banning trade with North Korea in all goods and technologies related to weapons of mass destruction, after North Korea tested a new set of short-range and long-range ballistic missiles. Neither the July resolution nor the current resolution has "Chapter Seven" backing, which involves the use of military force. Russia and China, while condemning the North Korean missile and nuclear tests, have resolutely opposed military action against the country.

The October 14 resolution bans the sale and export of military hardware, and nuclear- and missile-related items to or from North Korea, necessitates the inspection of cargo entering and leaving North Korea, and freezes North Korean finances in foreign banks. In fact, many of the sanctions have been in force informally for quite some time. The freezing of North Korean deposits in Macao under American pressure in 2003 infuriated Pyongyang. The main reason given for the move was that North Korea was engaged in criminal activities such as the counterfeiting of U.S. dollars. The Americans and their allies have also interdicted North Korean ships for the past couple of years. New Delhi has also played its part; three years ago the government impounded missile parts meant for Pakistan from a North Korean ship berthed in Kandla.

It was obvious that North Korea was being pushed against the wall. The nuclear gamble was taken after weighing all the odds. A bountiful harvest this year has meant that there are sufficient food stocks to last for three or four months. Pyongyang seems to have learnt from the experiences of India and Pakistan. In the first two months after their nuclear tests, the international community was fuming, but the anger gradually subsided. In the long run, the international community may not go along with Washington's plan of using "food as a weapon" to bring Pyongyang to heel. An imploding North Korea is not to the advantage of either Beijing or Seoul.

Reports suggest that before Pyongyang detonated its bomb, it took care to fulfil many of its export commitments and transferred crucial military technologies to a few close allies. Interestingly, the North Korean nuclear test coincided with the mid-term elections in the U.S. The dramatic upsurge in violence in Iraq has played a big role in undermining the popularity of the Bush administration. An opinion poll published in the U.S. after the North Korean nuclear test revealed that the majority of Americans held the Bush administration responsible for the crisis in the Korean peninsula.

Whether the international community likes it or not, North Korea has become a de facto member of the nuclear club. Pyongyang is no doubt aware that its actions could sound the death-knell of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). North Korean officials in fact said that they would welcome Japan, South Korea and Australia following their example, adding that such a move would take them out of the protection of the American nuclear umbrella and allow them to follow independent policies. Mohammed ElBaradei, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief, said after the North Korean nuclear test that 30 countries had the potential to become nuclear powers in a "very short time". Pyongyang walked out of the NPT after giving the due notice period two years ago. ElBaradei said that more nations were "hedging their bets" by developing technologies that are at the core of peaceful nuclear energy programmes but then could be quickly transformed to make weapons. Last year, 150 countries voted in favour of a U.N. resolution calling for negotiation of a nuclear weapons abolition convention. Only five countries voted against the resolution - the U.S., Britain, France, Israel and India.

After President George W. Bush branded North Korea part of the "axis of evil" and denigrated President Kim Jong-il as a "pygmy" and a "loathsome" man, the leadership in Pyongyang must have calculated that it did not have too many options left. In his 2002 State of the Union speech, Bush said that the so-called "axis of evil" states - Iraq, Iran and North Korea - were "arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. In any case the price of indifference would be catastrophic". The decisive factor for the North Koreans may have been the American invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration's reliance on the weapons of mass destruction argument to rationalise a regime change in Baghdad.

In 2005, the Bush administration placed unverified stories in the media alleging that North Korea had sold some plutonium and two tonnes of uranium hexafloride, a material used for enriching bomb fuel, to Libya. These were used to call for a "Cuban style" blockade of North Korea as a means of bringing about a regime change. These provocative acts encouraged Pyongyang to declare that it possessed nuclear weapons and would not return to the "six-party" disarmament talks in February 2005. It accused the Bush administration of pursuing "brazen-faced, double-dealing tactics" involving both dialogue and regime change.

The irony was that the previous Clinton administration was on the verge of negotiating a "nuclear deal" with Pyongyang. In late December 2000, then American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited the North Korean capital, where she was given a rapturous welcome. The "sunshine policy" of the South Korean government, led by Nobel Peace laureate Kim Dae-jung, had done the necessary spadework for a deal that had the potential to bring about lasting peace in the Korean peninsula. In exchange for security guarantees and promises of power reactors, North Korea promised to roll back its ambitious nuclear and missile programmes. One of the first things Bush did after assuming office, however, was to reverse the previous administration's Korea policy.

After the September 11 terror attacks in the U.S., Bush informed the U.S. Congress about a new "nuclear posture review" that effectively put North Korea on a list of potential U.S. nuclear targets. At the same time, the Bush administration made the decision to lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons by making low-yield tactical nukes available for battlefield use. This reversed the long-standing American policy of not targeting non-nuclear weapon states with nuclear weapons.

The Clinton administration had hoped to wean away North Korea and other states such as Iran from the nuclear option by holding out assurances that they would not be targeted by nuclear weapons. President Bill Clinton sent former President Jimmy Carter as his personal envoy to Pyongyang. Carter met with President Kim Il Sung and negotiated a deal which led to the 1994 "Framework Agreement". Under this agreement Clinton promised to provide food, fuel and two light water reactors to North Korea. More importantly, there was the promise of direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang. However, the U.S. never honoured the agreement. When Bush took office, it was dumped altogether. In a summit meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in March 2001 Bush crudely rejected the detente policy that Seoul was following.

Following the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), North Korea has been in dire economic straits. Russia, which shares its borders with North Korea, cut its energy and economic support sharply. China also cut its energy assistance to the country, including the supply of crude oil. Unprecedented flooding in 1995 and 1996 had caused much damage to North Korea's hydroelectric plants. Lack of spare parts degraded its coal-based power stations. Its transmission and distribution system has been in need of an upgrade since the 1990s. It was estimated that in 2000 North Korea's gross supply of electricity had shrunk by 70 per cent from the 1990 levels. Twenty-three million North Koreans are surviving on two gigawatts of energy, the amount used by one American city with a population of a million.

The energy crisis was a contributory factor to the famine that hit the country in the mid-1990s. Pyongyang communicated to the international community that it was not looking for short-term solutions of the kind proposed by the West. It demanded the same rights accorded to countries such as South Korea and Japan, which have successfully diversified their use of resources. Pyongyang also wants to explore for oil, set up natural gas projects and develop nuclear power without hindrance.

The Korean people have not forgotten that General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the U.S. forces in the Korean War (1950-53), requested authorisation from the U.S. President for the use of nuclear weapons in the peninsula. After the Bush administration unveiled its hard-line Korea policy, Pyongyang did not waste much time in reacting. In March 2002, North Korea said that it would take strong counter-measures against the Bush administration's "inhuman plan to spark a global nuclear arms race", and that it would not remain a "passive onlooker" after being made a potential nuclear target by Washington. At the same time Pyongyang offered an olive branch in repeated statements calling for direct talks; reeling under chronic power shortages it reminded Washington about the long-delayed project of building the two nuclear power stations promised in the 1994 agreement.

However, amid the Bush administration's threats and with no signs of the nuclear power stations being constructed, Pyongyang redoubled its efforts to possess a "nuclear deterrent" of its own. When the Bush administration confronted North Korea with evidence of its nuclear activities in late 2002, the authorities in Pyongyang did not bother to contradict it. In a statement released at the U.N. in October 2002, the North Koreans said that the Bush administration had "totally nullified" the 1994 agreement. "The DPRK, which values sovereignty more than life, was left with no other proper answer to the U.S. behaving so arrogantly and impertinently," the statement said. Noam Chomsky, talking to the media in Chile in the third week of October, defended Pyongyang's action. "North Korea faces the threat of nuclear weapons the United States has in the region and, therefore it needs to protect itself," he said.

The response of the Bush administration has been to toughen its stance. Continuous pressure has been exerted on the South Korean government to wind up its "sunshine policy" towards North Korea. That policy had changed inter-Korean relations dramatically; regular cultural and trade exchanges began, joint economic projects between the two countries took off, and South Korean public opinion of the North had changed for the better. A poll taken in the third week of October showed that the majority of South Koreans held the Bush administration responsible for the nuclear test conducted by Pyongyang. The people in South Korea have taken the new crisis in their stride. Pyongyang has repeatedly emphasised that the "nuclear deterrent" is only aimed against the U.S.

The imposition of sanctions was along expected lines, despite pressure from the U.S. for even tougher measures. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan described North Korea's nuclear test as "unacceptable" but stressed the need for bilateral negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who visited the region in the wake of the test, called on South Korea, China and Russia to implement the Security Council resolution strictly, especially the section relating to searching North Korean ships for nuclear- or missile-related technologies. Washington is interpreting this part of the resolution as implicit backing for its Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). Beijing, Moscow and Seoul have refused to endorse the plan for search. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ivanov told China's special envoy Tang Jiaxuan in Moscow in the third week of October that the U.N. sanctions "should not even hint at a possible use of military force and should not be aimed against the people of North Korea." Ivanov went on to add that Moscow and Beijing shared the view that the sanctions "should not be of an indefinite nature". He said that if North Korea returned to the six-party talks and progress was made, then the sanctions should be "automatically lifted". After its nuclear test, North Korea has once again agreed to participate in the six-party talks. It is also unlikely that the government of President Roh Moo Hyun will give up the "sunshine policy" altogether. Abandoning this policy would give more leverage to other powers. It is no secret that the Korean people harbour deep misgivings about Japan and, to a lesser extent, China. Both these countries had been colonisers in the Korean peninsula.

The ripple effects of the North Korean blast were felt in the capitals of India and Iran, albeit for different reasons. Iran, as the third member of the "axis of evil", has been on Washington's military radar for some years now. Bush has repeatedly vowed that he will not allow Iran to continue with the process of uranium enrichment, which is allowed under the NPT. The reaction from Teheran was therefore markedly different from that of New Delhi. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that blame for North Korea's test should be attributed to the major powers who "feel they are entitled to use and produce nuclear weapons. The injustice, inequality and discrimination in international law have resulted in such threats to world peace". The Iranian official said that it was the duty of the IAEA to create the necessary grounds for the peaceful use of nuclear energy by all countries.

Washington has been quick to reassure New Delhi that the North Korean test will not have a negative impact on the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. U.S. Under-Secretary of State Nicholas Burns said that there was no comparison between the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in 1998 and the North Korean test. Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee issued a strong statement denouncing the test as a "violation of [North Korea's] international commitments", ignoring the fact that North Korea, like India, was no longer an NPT member. Echoing the position of the established nuclear powers, Mukherjee said that the North Korean bomb was an illustration of "the dangers of clandestine proliferation".

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