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Nuclear brinkmanship

Print edition : Jan 17, 2003 T+T-

North Korea's decision to dismantle the International Atomic Energy Agency's monitoring devices stuns the U.S and its regional allies and brings to the fore the inherent contradictions of the international non-proliferation regime.

in Singapore

THE nuclear stakes are very high indeed as United States President George W. Bush seeks to expand his ongoing "global war against terror'' to include "regimes'' that are suspected to possess weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or those within a striking distance of possessing them. It is this aspect that accentuates the gravity of the latest, and ominously evolving, crisis over the fragile equation between the U.S. and North Korea.

The new round of confrontation began on December 12, as North Korea announced its intention to "unfreeze'' a sealed 5-MW research reactor that could yield "weapons-grade'' plutonium. It also announced its considered decision to resume the stalled construction of two other reactors presumably one with a planned 50-MW capacity and the other with a possible 200-MW limit for generation of electricity. Covered somewhere along the technical line, too, was the proposed resumption of either the construction or indeed the operation of a relevant reprocessing unit. Neither North Korea nor the U.S. was innocent about the possible availability of a potential `by-product' sizable quantities of plutonium that North Korea could use to make nuclear warheads.

For a while after Pyongyang literally stunned the U.S. and its allies in north-east Asia with its announcements, it appeared as though North Korea might just keep a low profile, at least for some time. This phase of a presumptive lull encouraged some sections of the American intelligence community to begin speculating about North Korea's real game plan "propaganda'' and not necessarily a hard-headed "policy'' or "re-nuclearisation''. It was at that juncture, though, that North Korea disclosed, on December 22, that it was now commencing the technical process of dismantling the internationally sponsored monitoring devices and of removing the related "seals'' in order to "produce electricity'' at the 5-MW experimental reactor at Yongbyon.

More important than the possible re-activation of the reactor was the meaning of the related "seals''. The surveillance cameras as also the "seals'' were installed by or at the behest of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the specific context of the "Agreed Framework'' that the U.S. and North Korea had signed in 1994. Virtually, both the U.S. and the IAEA had, at that time, portrayed the accord in general terms as a triumph of the U.S.-led international community's diplomacy of non-proliferation. What is seen to be unravelling today is not so much the ephemeral quality of such diplomacy as the assumption that the world could be made to order at the will of the U.S. At stake are the inherent contradictions of the multilateral agreement known as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It may not be all that ironical indeed that North Korea, a signatory to the NPT, has begun a process that could bring the NPT under a laser beam of scrutiny, unless the U.S. is able to have its way.

In portraying "Bush at war'' (the ongoing "anti-terror'' war in Afghanistan, that is), Bob Woodward has quoted the U.S. President as expressing private sentiments that are particularly relevant to the present context. "I loathe Kim Jong Il (the North Korean leader),'' Bush (is said to have) shouted, waving his finger in the air. The U.S. President is reported to have gone further: "I' ve got a visceral reaction to this guy (Kim Jong Il), because he is starving his people. And I have seen (satellite-sensed) intelligence of these prison camps (in North Korea, for `dissidents') ... I am appalled... I feel passionate about this... I am not foolish... They (Bush's advisers) tell me, we don't need to move too fast (against North Korea)... I just don't buy that (theory). Either you believe in freedom... or you don't''.

Yet, Bush's mind-set of this magnitude does not necessarily indicate that he is willing, at this stage, to go to war with North Korea over its perceived decision to cross the red line (an archetypal American way of looking at the nuclear issue). In fact, the White House has, until at least the Boxing Day of 2002, kept its option of a "peaceful'' resolution of the North Korean nuclear puzzle as a matter of priority on Bush's global agenda.

However, North Korea lost no time to lash out against the U.S. for bringing their bilateral confrontation to the "brink of a nuclear war''. Pyongyang's polemical reaction followed comments by U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the eve of Christmas, that it would be a grave miscalculation on the part of North Korea if it were to assume that it could indulge in nuclear permissiveness in view of America's preoccupation with Iraq's suspected WMDs. The U.S., Rumsfeld underlined, was confident of fighting wars on two fronts at the same time that is, Iraq and North Korea as the theatres of a new kind of war designed to dispossess these two sovereign countries of their WMD or at least destroy the capabilities of both Baghdad and Pyongyang to fabricate and deploy such weapons.

It is in this highly surcharged international ambience that some seasoned diplomats belonging to the countries allied with the U.S. in the Asia Pacific region have indicated to this writer that they would like to see "hard evidence'' of Pyongyang's infractions of its commitments to the international non-proliferation regime. These diplomats on the inside track argue that such proof would be required if a mysterious country like North Korea is to be brought to book on the non-proliferation front.

While such circumspection does not necessarily cast aspersions on the U.S.' world view during the present phase of high volatility on the global stage, the South Korean government said, on December 27, that it would "not like to jump to conclusions'' at this juncture itself as to whether or not Pyongyang had moved towards "reaching the red line'' or the threshold of producing and deploying WMDs in a credible and strike-threatening fashion.

"Thoughtful action'' would be called for, South Korea's outgoing administration of Kim Dae-Jung said. However, the powers-that-be in Seoul echoed the opinion of the President-elect, Roh Moo-Hyun, too, when they expressed the hope that the "U.S. will see things (the nuclear questions) in the same way'' as South Korea.

Two aspects of the evolving crisis over the North Korean nuclear issue came into sharp focus by Boxing Day 2002. First, the ambiguity about the real nature of Pyongyang's nuclear profile was not a matter of perception confined to countries such as South Korea, Japan, Russia and China, albeit in varied nuances. As amplified by Pyongyang's statement that the Americans were making "groundless'' claims that it had already "pushed ahead with a nuclear (arms) programme'', North Korea itself kept the international community guessing on this score.

In Pyongyang's reckoning, its current activism of the nuclear kind should be traced to Bush's infamous visualisation of an "axis of evil'' that linked Iraq and Iran with North Korea as alleged proliferators and terror-sponsors.

While Bush made his anti-terror pitch of this dimension in January 2002, the U.S. claims that North Korea's confession in October about its "clandestine'' uranium-enrichment programme was the turning point. Citing this, Washington and its allies have cut off fuel supplies to North Korea, supplies that were designed to help it meet its energy shortages without taking recourse to the nuclear-reactor route.

The story of the U.S.-guided multilateral sponsorship of light-water reactors for electricity-generation in North Korea is a related matter of contested claims and counter-claims from these two countries. It is in this milieu that North Korea has cited the stoppage of heavy oil fuels in December 2002 to justify the re-activation of the small nuclear reactor that yields spin-off plutonium. Of greater immediate relevance is the perceived move by North Korea to use an existing stockpile of sizable spent fuel the quantity accumulated before the IAEA-sponsored shut-down of the experimental reactor at stake in order to produce nuclear weapons through suitable reprocessing and other techniques.

Another unresolved question is whether Pakistan and China had played any role that might have enabled North Korea to acquire these technologies.

The second inter-linked aspect of the current crisis has to do with the influence that powers other than the U.S. could exert over North Korea at this point. It was the old Soviet Union, a staunch adherent to the NPT, that had persuaded or pressured North Korea into acceding to that regime in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, it is said, newly de-classified archival material had enabled Sergei Goncharov and his associates to draw up a picture of "uncertain partners'' on the communist side of the Korean war of the early 1950s. Today, in contrast, there is a danger that the U.S. as also Japan and South Korea (not to mention Russia and China) might become "uncertain partners'' in seeking to de-nuclearise North Korea, if they do not resort to "thoughtful action'' (a South Korean phrase of substance).

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