[VIEWPOINT]Lesson of the last nuclear dramaThe International Atomic Energy Agency declared last week that North Korea is “noncompliant” with nuclear nonproliferation agreements and sent the matter to the UN Security Council. The course of action taken by IAEA, North Korea and Washington reminds us of the situation in the 1993-94 nuclear crisis. In 1994, North Korea succumbed to international pressure and returned to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and IAEA safeguards. Will it do the same this time?
The current nuclear standoff was kindled when a senior U.S. State Department official, James Kelly, visited Pyeong-yang in October 2002. When Mr. Kelly indicated that Washington had intelligence on Pyeongyang’s program to enrich uranium for weapons, the North admitted that it had continued nuclear weapons development in violation of the framework agreement it had signed in 1994.
The Bush administration decided to scrap the 1994 accord with North Korea and stopped supply of heavy fuel oil. The North responded with a demand for a nonaggression treaty with the United States. When its demand was not met, it started escalating threats: It removed IAEA monitoring facilities and deported IAEA inspectors; declared withdrawal from the Nonproliferation Treaty, and reopened the five-megawatt Yeongbyeon reactor.
In the 1993-94 nuclear drama, the North followed more or less the same course of action: It declared withdrawal from the Nonproliferation Treaty in March, 1993; refused IAEA inspections; broke seals on nuclear facilities and replaced used fuel rods, and declared withdrawal from the IAEA in June 1994.
In 1994, the drama ended after former U.S. President Jimmy Carter met Kim Il Sung. Mr. Carter conveyed a message to Washington: “North Korea desires to find a constructive solution to the very serious issues between North Korea and the international community.” U.S.-North Korea dialogue was resumed and the Geneva Agreement was signed in October 1994.
Throughout the 1993-94 nuclear crisis, Pyeongyang tried hard to strike a deal with Washington. When it became apparent that UN sanctions were unavoidable, Kim Il Sung accepted Mr. Carter’s offer ― in exchange for face-saving and economic benefits, it acceded the UN’s demand for return to the Nonproliferation Treaty.
The situation has changed greatly in the meantime. First of all, North Korea’s potential nuclear capability is greatly enhanced. In addition to the one or two warheads it was presumed to possess in 1994, it can now produce six to eight weapons from 8,000 used fuel rods in cooling ponds, and it has uranium enrichment technology imported from Pakistan. The North’s missile technology has also been developed to a higher stage. It is feared that its missiles now under development could reach the western coast of the United States.
On the other hand, the U.S.-South Korea alliance is much weaker than in 1994. There is talk of U.S. forces withdrawal from South Korea. The South Korean government has been sympathetic to North Korea since it adopted the “sunshine” policy of engagement with the North. It has reached the extent that the incoming government, if it had to choose, would prefer a nuclear-armed North Korea to a North Korea in collapse, according to press reports.
Internationally, the war with Iraq, which requires full U.S. military commitment, and the international anti-war campaign also create favorable conditions for North Korea.
It is not likely, therefore, that Kim Jong-il will feel compelled to succumb to international pressure as his late father did nine years ago. Already some European countries and Australia have expressed opposition to UN sanctions. More countries will follow suit. What about China and Russia?
Does this mean that North Korean nuclear brinkmanship has succeeded? Will others who want to join the nuclear club follow? War should be avoided, but peace gained by an unwise bargain will breed an even more devastating catastrophe. From the two nuclear dramas on the Korean Peninsula, we learn that only a staunch alliance can deter aggressive schemes.
* The writer is opinion page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo