[OUTLOOK]A nuclear emergency in 2003?

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[OUTLOOK]A nuclear emergency in 2003?

Speculation about a security emergency in 2003 is coming from several quarters, and as if to back up the theory, there are some inauspicious signs. The most prominent is U.S. President George W. Bush's speech on the "axis of evil," as well as the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review. The nuclear report, which was prepared by the Pentagon, suggests that the United States may take an aggressive posture against countries which are trying to develop weapons of mass destruction. That has led to nervousness among U.S. allies and other countries about the possibility of a preemptive U.S. nuclear attack.

China and North Korea were included in the target list of seven rogue countries; the change of concept from being threatened by rogue countries to listing them as U.S. military targets is a shocking about-face.

In a recent interview by the JoongAng Ilbo with Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ms. Fleming said North Korea is very uncooperative with the agency's inspections of nuclear facilities. Since it would take at least three to four years to complete the inspections of the North's facilities, Ms. Fleming said that the inspections should start right away.

North Korea's stance on recent developments is very prickly. Pyeongyang, through its Foreign Ministry spokesmen, said if the U.S. plans on nuclear attack do actually exist, it would reconsider the 1994 Geneva agreement with the United States to freeze nuclear facilities, accept nuclear inspections and abide by the international safeguards accord.

North Korea's response was predictable, since its biggest security concern is a nuclear attack by the United States.

In regards to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization project, the tension between Pyeongyang and Washington is also a concern.

Under the Geneva Agreement, KEDO is to provide one nuclear power plant with a 2,000-megawatt capacity to the North by 2003. But the progress of the project has been very slow, and the promised power plant will not be provided on schedule. North Korea is rumbling that it could reopen its old reactor if it is not compensated for the 2,000 megawatts of energy it was promised beginning in 2003, the target date for the nuclear plant.

North Korea said it would open its facilities to nuclear inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency when the construction of the light-reactor is near completion and right before the major parts of the reactor arrive in North Korea. That may not happen, Pyeongyang said, until 2005. But the United States demands immediate and full inspections; only after that, it says, would it consider talks with Pyeongyang about compensation for the delayed construction.

A senior U.S. arms control official, John Bolton, said recently that Washington could itself pull the plug on the Geneva agreement if North Korea drags its feet on inspections. If the agreement breaks down, and if North Korea resumes testing its Daepodong-2 missile, tension on the peninsula could rise far higher than that which existed in 1994. President Bush could decide to launch a military strike against Pyeongyang with low-yield nuclear weapons. Then the peninsula would be at war.

The security emergency looming in 2003 should be prevented. To do that, the North should change its posture toward the outside world. The North is mainly responsible for the delays in the light-water reactor project, so Pyeongyang should not shrug its shoulders and say the problem lies with the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization. North Korea should be more amenable to nuclear inspections and resolve the friction it is now experiencing through warming up the relationship between the two Koreas.

Ever since the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, the international situation has been dramatically different; the North's brinkmanship tactics can be hazardous.

The United States should also be more cautious. As the Geneva Agreement states, Washington should acknowledge the North as a negotiating partner and give assurances that it will not use nuclear weapons against North Korea. Washington must try to relieve the implicit threat against Pyeongyang in the "axis of evil" comment and the nuclear report. The United States cannot start a war on the peninsula alone, if Seoul objects.

Seoul should also provide assurances to the North by honoring the Geneva Agreement and continuing support for the light-water reactor project.

The 2003 security emergency scenario is not just unfounded fears. The World Cup, the Asian Games and the presidential election are important, but nothing can be more important than the threat of nuclear war.


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The writer is a professor of international relations at Yonsei University.

by Moon Chung-in

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