A nuclear confession

Print edition : March 11, 2005

A satellite image shows the Yongbyon Nuclear Centre, located north of Pyongyang, North Korea. - SPACE IMAGING ASIA/AP

North Korea's announcement that it possesses nuclear weapons takes the international community by surprise and evokes mixed reactions from its neighbours.

THE announcement by North Korea on February 10 that it was in possession of nuclear weapons has taken the international community by surprise. The government in Pyongyang also proclaimed its indefinite withdrawal from the six-nation talks hosted by China and once again demanded direct talks with the United States.

The announcement, particularly its timing, caught the U.S. and its allies in East Asia on the wrong foot. The U.S. was busy orchestrating a campaign against Iran in a bid to persuade that country to give up its nuclear weapons programme. A few hours before the North Korean government made its announcement, Washington had issued a statement expressing optimism about North Korea's imminent return to the six-nation talks, which were last held in June last year in Beijing. The other three participants in the talks are Japan, Russia and South Korea.

U.S. President George W. Bush had sent two envoys to Beijing in the second week of February to convince the Chinese government to persuade the North Koreans to give up their nuclear programme and re-start the six-nation dialogue. Washington has been insisting for quite some time that North Korea is pursuing a secret uranium-based weapons programme, based on Pakistani technology sold or bartered to Pyongyang by the Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.

Apparently, the U.S. has also gathered clinching evidence from Libya about the quality of North Korean raw uranium that ended up in the North African nation. According to reports, the U.S. has shown evidence to the Chinese authorities of Pyongyang's two parallel nuclear programmes - one involving plutonium and the other involving uranium. American intelligence agencies had reported earlier that North Korea was in possession of eight nuclear bombs. It has now emerged that South Korea, too, was engaged in a clandestine nuclear programme, which had reached an advanced stage.

PYONGYANG'S latest pledge to "bolster its nuclear weapons arsenal" evoked mixed responses from its neighbours. As expected, South Korea was very critical of North Korea's announcement. However, the statements from Seoul indicated that it would still prefer a negotiated settlement to the issue, and tried to put an optimistic gloss over it.

The South Korean Unification Minister, Chung Dong Yong, said that he doubted Pyongyang's claim of possessing nuclear weapons. He said that the real reason for the announcement from Pyongyang at this juncture was probably to send a strong signal that its demands, including direct talks with Washington, be met. South Korean Foreign Minister Ki-Moon Ban made a hurried visit to Washington in the third week of February. While addressing a press conference in Washington, he said that his country supported Washington's position on the resumption of the six-party talks. He called upon the North Korean government to give up its nuclear option immediately.

At the same time, the South Korean government has made it clear that it is against the further tightening of international sanctions against the beleaguered North, whose economy has been on a downward slide since the early 1990s. The collapse of the socialist bloc, which was the traditional trading partner of the North, coupled with cyclical rounds of flooding and drought, are the major reasons for the dire financial straits the country is in. Stories of starvation deaths on a large scale and mass disaffection among the North Korean populace seem to be exaggerated. A recent story appearing in the South Korean media revealed that more than 30 per cent of the defectors from the North wanted to return to the allegedly starving and authoritarian North.

Seoul has said that it will continue with its policy of reconciliation and cooperation with the North despite Pyongyang's announcement about its nuclear programme. Seoul has also announced that it would continue with its food aid and the supply of much-needed fertilizers to the North. With the North Korean economy now being patterned on the Chinese model, South Korean entrepreneurs are doing roaring business with their neighbour, investing their capital in the North and using the North's cheap but productive labour. South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun is also known to be against President Bush's continuing demonisation and vilification of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and talk of regime change.

During her confirmation hearings, the new U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, described North Korea as an "outpost of tyranny". In November last, the new Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief, Porter Gross, recommended the despatch of undercover agents to penetrate the North Korean government. The U.S. Congress has authorised $24 million annually to tackle North Korean human rights and refugee issues. Replicating the Iraqi experience, a group of North Koreans, with Washington's blessings, have formed a government in exile. There have also been some attempts to link North Korea with Al Qaeda, on the basis of a few North Korean arms found with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in southern Philippines.

Pyongyang, while making the February 10 announcement, stated that "[it had] manufactured nukes for self-defence to cope with the Bush administration's ever more undisguised policy to isolate and stifle North Korea". Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is backing Washington's hardline position on the North. In fact, the North Korean statement of February 10 had also accused Japan "of toeing the U.S. line". In response to the latest move from Pyongyang, Japan, which is North Korea's third biggest trading partner, has implemented an obscure maritime law, which requires all ships to be insured before calling on Japanese ports. Only around 2 per cent of the ships flying the North Korean flag are insured. This move had an adverse impact on the currency-strapped North Korean economy.

China, North Korea's immediate neighbour, responded cautiously. From available indications, Pyongyang had not given any indication to Beijing about its impending move and the Chinese government responded by issuing a statement calling on the North Korean government to return to the negotiating table. More importantly, Beijing has issued a call for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. According to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing has called for the "denuclearisation" of the Korean peninsula. China being a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, its stance is very important. Beijing wants the U.N. to play a key role in defusing the nuclear crisis and to prevent the U.S. from taking unilateral steps. Since the expulsion of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors by Pyongyang in 2003, Beijing has seen to it that no censure vote is passed against the North by the Security Council.

All the same, there are indications that Beijing is not too happy with the latest turn of events. An article in Beijing News said that the latest declaration from the North was "surprising" but reflected Pyongyang's customary "reckless and provocative behaviour". The State-run media have been widely critical of North Korea's latest move. China is afraid that if North Korea is allowed to have its way on the nuclear issue, then it is only a matter of time for its other immediate neighbours such as Japan and South Korea to follow suit. According to experts, both these countries have the expertise to go nuclear within months if they decide to do so.

However, it is unlikely that Beijing will distance itself completely from Pyongyang. As analysts have noted, the relationship between the two is one forged in war. The two were allies in the war against the U.S. in the early 1950s. As many as 3,60,000 Chinese soldiers lost their lives in the Korean War, defending socialism on the Korean soil. The 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance committed one country to aid the other if attacked. Chinese leaders view the relationship between the two countries as being one of "lips and teeth". If the lips (Korea) disappear, the teeth (China) will chatter.

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