[OUTLOOK]North confirms its unreliability

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[OUTLOOK]North confirms its unreliability

The stunning news that North Korean has belligerently acknowledged a nuclear weapons development program has thrown the region's security outlook into chaos. I was struck by the convergence of this announcement from Washington and the theme raised by Victor Cha of Georgetown University in a column in this newspaper last Monday. He noted that while the Bush administration's interest in talking with the North was genuine, official Washington expected that diplomacy and engagement would ultimately fail.

Have we already reached a point where engagement has failed? Perhaps not; North Korea will now have to deal with a rapid deterioration in its relations with the outside world as rapid as the breakthroughs with Seoul, Tokyo and Brussels. None of the consequences bode well for Pyeongyang.

First, even though South Korea and Japan say they intend to continue their dialogue with the North, Tokyo will be under even stronger domestic political pressure to go slow. Japanese public opinion is more skeptical than Prime Minister Koizumi might have wished because of the death of eight kidnapped Japanese. Seoul will also face domestic political and grassroots opposition to continuing its checkbook diplomacy with the North.

Second, the "donor fatigue" in the international community will grow. There is misery all over the world, and the North's flouting of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the 1994 Agreed Framework with the United States will make it easier for donor countries to send their food aid elsewhere.

Third, China is in a difficult situation because it no more wants a nuclear-armed neighbor on its doorstep than does Japan. As other outside assistance to the North dries up, China will face the need to either cooperate in international efforts to close down the North's nuclear program or take on the bulk of the burden of feeding and electrifying North Korea itself.

Fourth, the KEDO program in the North will certainly be suspended if not killed outright. It is hard to imagine any saleable justification for keeping the project going. Its demise, temporary or permanent, will increase pressure on North Korea's meager foreign exchange reserves. Heavy fuel oil shipments from the United States will cease, and there will be even fewer electric lights burning on the northern half of the peninsula. A few casinos and bordellos in Sinuiju would not help the cash pinch much.

While the prospect of a grimmer winter and spring in North Korea is sure to stimulate war talk, the United States finds itself again with an awkwardly timed crisis on the peninsula. Preparing for a war against Iraq, Washington needs no second front in Asia, so its most likely strategy would seem to be to keep the economic pressure on the North and to keep the South, at least during the rest of the Kim Dae-jung administration, from trying for some last-minute, cash-centered breakthrough. Washington is probably looking forward to a more skeptical successor government here that would be willing to demand more reciprocity in its dealings with Pyeongyang.

What are the North's intentions in all this? Although press attention has focused on how Washington was caught by surprise during Mr. Kelly's visit to Pyeongyang, Pyeongyang was probably caught even more off guard by the Americans' disclosure of intelligence information that must have been irrefutable.

It is rather amusing that Pyeongyang would accuse Mr. Kelly of "arrogant" behavior during his visit there. Their pugnacious "We've got 'em and we may use 'em" response was probably the best they could come up with to respond to irrefutable evidence, and the bluster is certainly in character.

Seoul's murky northern diplomacy has left room for questions about just what the North promised and in return for what, but the pact with the United States, although hedged in places, was clearly enough drawn to show that Pyeongyang has not changed its propensity to make a deal, skim the benefits and then walk away.


The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by John Hoog

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