Testing time

Published : Jul 03, 2009 00:00 IST

in Singapore

THE frenetic pace at which North Korea is moving along the fast track of nuclear-arms testing is confounding the Obama administration as it comes of age. China, the only country with some influence over the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea), and the latters ethnic neighbour to the south, besides Japan and Russia, are also puzzled.

Surprisingly, these countries have, through several crises since 2003, remained together in the six-party talks on the issue of Korean denuclearisation. However, a question mark descended upon the future of the talks after North Koreas nuclear detonation, the second in what may be a series, in May. And it remains where it was, although some doubts about the authenticity of the test gained currency in the United States in the first week of June. These doubts were based on the perception that some scientific signs of a powerful underground nuclear explosion were not sufficiently emphatic in this case. At one level, this triggered speculation about a smart test by the DPRK. The debate by the second week of June was whether the DPRK camouflaged some effects of its test or whether it was not as powerful as proclaimed.

Regardless of this new guessing game, the signals to the DPRK from the Obama administration have remained hostile, as this report is written. In a sense, President Barack Obama finds himself singularly bereft of any kind of initial goodwill insofar as the DPRK is concerned. For a man who wants to be a new-age President with an agenda of listening to adversaries in the first place, this must be a withering experience. All that he heard from the DPRK before and for over 10 days after its May nuclear test was a relentless barrage of anti-U.S. monologue. This was in contrast to the greetings he received from elsewhere in the world, with varying degrees of interest in his promise of a new U.S. as global power.

Two reasons should explain this anomalous situation. First, on East Asia, Obama has so far followed a policy of substantial continuity from where his predecessor George W. Bush left off. Such continuity may well be revised soon or perhaps after Obama visits this region for an Asia-Pacific summit in Singapore later this year. In the meantime, the DPRK leader, Kim Jong-il, has raised the stakes, believing that the U.S. has not shaken off its hostility towards him. Indeed, this is true, as is evident from Obamas reaction to Pyongyangs latest nuclear test.

Closely related to this continuity is the other reason why the U.S. now finds itself in a quandary over the Korean nuclear issue. Kims assessment is that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a hawk on the DPRKs nuclear ambitions, is misleading Obama. Pyongyang views Japanese leaders, including Prime Minister Taro Aso, in a similar light.

By June 7, when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at toughness towards the DPRK, the nuclear issue had become a new strategic pointer. The debate in East Asian diplomatic circles, much of it behind the scenes, was no longer centred on the technical details of the May 25 nuclear test. Regardless of the later doubts over details, the detonation and the DPRKs parallel missile test flights signalled an almost irreversible political will. It was being increasingly recognised that Kim, who had by his own reckoning crossed the nuclear Rubicon, would not be willing to retreat. At least, he might not do so under the current rules of engagement with the DPRKs partners in the six-party talks.

Chinese diplomats have often privately said that Chinas influence over the DPRK with regard to its nuclear profile is minimal. In their view, it suits the larger international community, variously seized of so many concerns, to look to China for a lead on the DPRK nuclear issue. In a different sense, Beijing also has come to relish its high global status in nuclear diplomacy.

Beijings diplomats have said in private conversations that a proactive diplomacy of non-proliferation will be good for the peaceful rise of China. In fact, it is in this interplay of expectations that Beijing has made common cause with Washington over nuclear non-proliferation issues in recent years. China knows that it can hope to reap a peace dividend by playing this role as a responsible stakeholder in the evolving global order.

A counterpoint, mainly in the non-official discourse on non-proliferation, is that the promise of a nuclear utopia must be universal in scope. For the present, the talks process and all other non-proliferation exercises do not at all aim at the total elimination of nuclear weapons across the world. What is being attempted is the prevention of production, testing and deployment of nuclear weapons by states that are not in possession of them.

The DPRKs case, as viewed within these limited parameters, falls in a grey zone. The six-party talks were explicitly started in 2003 to try and prevent North Korea from producing, testing or deploying any nuclear weapon. However, an undeterred Pyongyang has already tested nuclear weapons twice. Its first underground nuclear detonation took place in October 2006.

Beijing has chaired the talks since its inception. The U.S. has always looked to a cooperative China to initiate steps to break the logjams in the process. As a result, the U.S. has sought to retain its status as the sole global superpower by building a unique space-time framework in strategic terms. It is indeed easy to see that the aim, from the standpoint of the U.S., is to gain from a better space-time management. To the extent that China promotes U.S. interests with regard to the DPRK, an American leader will be able to focus more on other areas of concern. From a U.S. perspective, there is no dearth of concerns. Irans nuclear profile, stabilisation of the post-Saddam Iraq and Pakistans patronage of anti-U.S. terror in Afghanistan are just three such concerns.

The DPRK, despite its status as a pathetically poor country, has often shown strategic dynamism of a kind that would bring credit to established powers. Duplicitous or otherwise, the DPRK did manage to test a nuclear weapon in 2006, amid some positive signs in the six-party talks. In conventional wisdom, the talks should have collapsed under the weight of that contradiction. Yet, and somewhat like Pakistan on international terrorism, the DPRK, while being the problem, made itself acutely relevant to any solution. The six-party talks did resume after North Koreas 2006 nuclear test.

Thereafter, the DPRK agreed to shut down a nuclear complex, disable it and even dismantle the countrys atomic-arms infrastructure. What followed was North Koreas dramatic demolition of the cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. Encouraged by this, and in line with some expectations of the strategic kind, the Bush administration rewarded North Korea. Kims highly militarised state was removed from a U.S. list of rogue nations with links to international terror. Nearly seven years earlier, the U.S. had bracketed the DPRK with Saddam Husseins Iraq, and Iran as a key component of an axis of evil.

The grand paradox of the 2008 U.S. action of delisting the DPRK as a terror-sponsor has now come to haunt the Obama administration. Kims proclivity to sell his nuclear and missile hardware and related soft skills on the international black market has always rankled the U.S. This was indeed a key reason to place or retain the DPRK on the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring states.

On June 7, Hillary Clinton said the U.S. might now consider relegating the DPRK back to that list. The new context was defined by Pyongyangs second nuclear test and a parallel string of missile launches. It was not so much a sense of deja vu or desperation as a subtle admission of the limitations of Americas power on the global stage. Earlier, in April too, the U.S. could not do much to tame the DPRK following its controversial satellite launch.

As this is written, the United Nations Security Council remains divided over what Obama has seen as the DPRKs extreme provocation. The issue is not so much the scientific and technological potency of the latest nuclear-weapon test as its implications for a future global nuclear order.

The DPRK has often resorted to informal bilateral talks with the U.S. before allowing China to make progress in the overall talks process. As a result, a subtle trilateral process involving the U.S. and China as also the DPRK has become critical to the six-party talks. Outwardly, though, a U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral engagement has served as a pressure point on the DPRK.

In Chinas strategic view, a nuclear-armed Japan, a scenario no member of the talks is willing to bet on now, may be the end result of the DPRKs actions. However, Beijing is in a position to deal with any such eventuality. On balance, therefore, the changing equations among the U.S., China and the DPRK may matter to all concerned, at least for now.

Unsurprisingly, some new ideas are doing the rounds behind the scenes. Scott Snyder, an expert who has studied North Korean negotiating behaviour, has suggested a formula based on preventive defence. In focus, obviously, is a U.S. position on the issue. The idea is that of a deal to purchase North Koreas plutonium stockpiles. The proposal is based on the precedent set by former U.S. Defence Secretary William Perry in the mid-1990s. He sought to buy out and remove nuclear materials from former Soviet republics. And, this came to be known as a preventive defence strategy.

A relevant question now is whether the DPRK, which wants a strategic deal with the U.S. for the unfinished Korean War of the 1950s, will agree. After all, the DPRK does not see itself in the position that the former Soviet republics found themselves in during the 1990s. There is also a larger dimension in focus: the DPRK nuclear issue is becoming relevant to the U.S.-China equation itself.

Harry Harding, a China specialist, has said the new U.S. administration may have to look afresh. Korean denuclearisation, it is said, could become an example of the benefits that can be achieved from U.S.-China cooperation.

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