Raising the stakes

Published : Jul 03, 2009 00:00 IST

AT A PROTEST rally in Seoul on May 26 against the nuclear test, holding a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.-JO YONG-HAK /REUTERS

AT A PROTEST rally in Seoul on May 26 against the nuclear test, holding a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.-JO YONG-HAK /REUTERS

ON May 25, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) conducted its second underground nuclear test. On both ends of this test, the North Korean military fired two long-range missiles. Governments in the region with a reason to be worried (South Korea and Japan) hastily condemned the actions.

China, which shares most of North Koreas northern border, did not mince words in condemning the test, asking the North Koreans to return to the six-party denuclearisation talks, and it pleaded for all sides to calmly and appropriately deal with the situation. China fears that North Koreas provocations might push Japan to convert its considerable nuclear stockpile into weapons and so begin a needless arms race in north-eastern Asia.

The Russians also fear this regional escalation. Moscow said right after the test: The latest steps by North Korea escalate tensions in north-east Asia and endanger security and stability in the region. All eyes turned to Washington.

Chinas wording is significant. All sides, of course, represents the six parties (North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States) whose negotiations since 2003 have been put on hold. But the two sides that count the most in this exchange are North Korea and the U.S. (whose proxy, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, will not stray too far from Washingtons lead, unlike his two predecessors whose Sunshine Policy contradicted the wishes of the Bush administration). China cautioned the U.S. not to pivot too far away from prudence, and this indeed was the tone of President Barack Obamas first statement, with one exception. Offering the usual condemnations, Obama renewed Washingtons pledge to the six-party talks but offered a veiled threat. North Koreas actions, he said, have also flown in the face of the United Nations resolutions, and as a result, North Korea is deepening its own isolation and inviting stronger international pressure.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined Obamas plea, saying that the North Korean actions were not helpful. But what precisely is unhelpful about them and what can the U.S. do in light of North Koreas actions? The think tank circuit that surrounds the U.S. State Department is trying to answer precisely this question. One of the problems is that there is a lack of understanding of North Korea and, of course, a total lack of intelligence about the North Korean regime.

Richard C. Bush III, who runs the liberal Brookings Institutions Centre for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, put it quite plainly, saying that North Korea was a black box and that all we can rely on is uninformed speculation. Washington recognises Pyongyangs constraints, but it has its own view of things. While there is wide divergence between conservatives and liberals on the U.S. strategy towards North Korea, there is widespread agreement that what the establishment wants to see is the end of what it calls the Kim dynasty. As Richard Bush put it the day after the nuclear test, It was the Kim dynasty that chose the misguided option of nuclear weapons to obtain security. The end of the Kim dynasty will create the possibility and only the possibility of a different approach. Behind the calls for negotiations, such as the most recent one, made by U.S. Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth, lies this fundamental goal: the end of the Kim dynasty, and perhaps the reunification of Korea. It is no comfort to Pyongyangs leadership, which has hastened to name Kim Jong-ils youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor.

In 2001, the Bush administration added North Korea (alongside Iran and Iraq) to the axis of evil, with President George W. Bush using racist language to refer to Kim Jong-il. (Bush used the term pygmy, among other derisive ones, to describe Kim.) When the U.S. went after Iraq, the North Koreans feared that they would be the next, that the U.S. and South Korean militaries might move north of the 38th Parallel, the Demilitarised Zone. Pyongyang walked out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 to seek a nuclear shield. Responding to this crisis, the Chinese invited the U.S. and North Korean diplomats in April to find a way out of the impasse. In August, the Chinese brought the South Koreans, the Russians and the Japanese along and inaugurated the six-party talks.

The North Koreans had two major crises on their hands: one, fear that the U.S. might move against North Korea with its military force (the quagmire in Iraq had still not become clear), and second, that the North Korean economy had stagnated into subsistence. The nuclear threat and the Songun (military first) thrust provided Pyongyang with a bargaining chip to attain a permanent security arrangement with the U.S. and South Korea and a permanent economic assistance programme from its various neighbours. Until it could be assured on these two counts, it was unlikely for the North Koreans to accede to any permanent non-proliferation programme.

This was anathema to Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, all of which wanted to see a defanged North Korea almost as a precondition to any serious talk of permanent security and economic deals. The prospect of these talks was always bleak.

On October 9, 2006, North Korea conducted its first underground nuclear test. During the summer leading up to the test, North Korea had threatened to conduct a series of missile launches. In The Washington Post, two of Bill Clintons top defence policy people, William Perry (who was Secretary of Defence) and Ashton Carter (who was Perrys deputy), published an opinion piece with a straightforward title, If Necessary, Strike and Destroy: North Korea Cannot be Allowed to Test this Missile (June 22).

Perry and Carter went straight for the jugular. If the U.S. hits the missile with a conventional weapon it would cause it to explode. The carefully engineered test bed for North Koreas nascent nuclear missile force would be destroyed, and its attempt to retrogress to Cold War threats thwarted. There would be no damage to North Korea outside the immediate vicinity of the missile gantry.

Bushs Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called in her deputy, Philip Zelikow, to consult with him about this scenario. Zelikow later recalled that while he agreed with Perry and Carter, he felt that military action was premature for two reasons. First, the tests of 2006 were at an elementary level, and North Korea would need many more such tests to come to the threshold of real missile capability. Second, it would be better for the U.S. to draw a red line, to push its allies and the U.N. to set a tripwire for the North Koreans. A firm warning could provide the basis for action in the future. The red line came in two U.N. Security Council resolutions (1695 in July 2006 and 1718 in October 2006), with the second invoking Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which allows the U.N. and its member-states to take such action by air, sea or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security (Article 42).

As Zelikow remembers it, This was imperative language, the strongest international action against North Korea since the 1953 Korean War armistice. U.S. liberal analysts recognise that Washington must go slowly, that a patient combination of carrots and sticks will bring the desired result. This policy was set in motion in 1994, when the administration of Bill Clinton offered to lift its trade embargo on North Korea, assist in the creation of a civilian nuclear programme, and allow shipments of fuel oil, all for the cessation of the North Korean nuclear weapons programme. Promises came quickly, but Washington did not deliver on most of them. Famines in the 1990s resulted in catastrophic mortality (a million North Koreans died in this period, and in 1997 a World Food Programme study showed that almost 40 per cent of North Korean children were stunted and 16.5 per cent were wasted).

The North Korean economy is utterly dependent on foreign aid, a far cry from its self-proclaimed self-reliance (juche) ideology. It is this helplessness that enabled leverage for Washington, which has used Pyongyangs desperation to constrain its actions. Rather than debase itself, Pyongyang has turned to nuclear hjinks to sustain the aid. Liberal analysts recognise this and do not, therefore, take the provocations utterly seriously.

Obamas National Security Adviser James Jones response to the tests was that the U.S. knew that they were going to do this; they said so, so no reason not to believe it. Nothing that the North Koreans did surprised us. To activate the stick, the U.S. uses threats of nuclear proliferation rather than attack: it recognises that it is suicidal for the North to attack Japan or even South Korea, but that it is possible for the North to sell its technology to non-state actors. That is the threat that the liberal analysts and the Obama administration have focussed on so as to justify any tough talk against Pyongyang.

Conservatives are less circumspect. They believe that North Korea is using the nuclear card to successfully pursue any of its breathtaking revisionist objectives. Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute is not detained by North Koreas economic troubles. His emphasis is on North Koreas revisionism, its desire to transform the international chessboard. Eberstadt does not believe that the North Koreans are serious about negotiations because they are in a sense wrapped up in an endless struggle for world supremacy. They regard offering any quarter to opponents in what they regard (perhaps not so unreasonably) as an international life-or-death struggle as indistinguishable from treason.

It is certainly true, as Brookings analyst Linbo Jin points out, that the North Korean leadership believes that it has the political will and capability to become a strong military power which will not only be able to safeguard the peace and security of the Korean peninsula but also obtain an equal footing with other nuclear powers on the regional and global stage. But this is quite far from saying that the North Koreans want to be world conquerors and are, therefore, a threat to the U.S.

Eberstadt and his ilk, eager to return U.S. policy back to the brinkmanship of the Bush years, are discomforted by negotiations. The stage is now held by liberalism. There are some around the State Department who are interested in the kind of talks that would give the North Koreans economic aid and energy assistance as long as the North puts International Atomic Energy Agency seals on the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Their motivation is proliferation and they are even willing to use Bushs Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to move their agenda (the PSI is the brainchild of the intransigent neoconservative John Bolton).

The day after North Koreas second test, the South Korean government joined the PSI, which urges it to interdict what it considers are illicit transfers of weapons of mass destruction. If the South Koreans stop a North Korean ship, it could be a casus belli. On the other hand, it might be just a way to remind the North of the thousands of U.S. troops massed near its border and of the U.S. arsenal that could be deployed to overthrow the regime. This is a game of chess, with the liberals moving their knights and pawns forward, but eager, it seems, to conduct some kind of negotiation without coming close to check.

The Obama team is using the Bush methods as a stick, at the same time as it seems to have put in play its various carrots. Pyongyang is banking on this. Having won concessions after the 2006 test, it hopes to repeat the feat this year. Both sides are speaking different diplomatic languages. Patience is the order of the day.

As Linbo Jin puts it, Given the fact that the North Korean nuclear paradox has already become a political, security and economic knot, it is more than obvious that it cannot be resolved by hasty, insincere, and inconsistent diplomatic efforts. What is needed, he writes, is for the international community to work closely with each other and deal with North Koreas nuclear crisis in a more cool-headed, cooperative and coordinated, consistent, patient and persistent manner. The number of adjectives, perhaps, indicates how hard it will be to make all sides talk with smaller voices.

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