[OUTLOOK]Few options for North’s neighborsThe declaration that North Korea has nuclear weapons and will boycott the six-party talks on its nuclear program indefinitely came a week after President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address, which the North Koreans had told a U.S. Congress delegation they would listen to closely. It also came on the day when Iran celebrated the 26th anniversary of the Islamic revolution and President Mohammad Khatami threatened Washington with “a burning hell.” Was there intrigue between the two members of the “axis of evil”?
What are the goals the North aims to attain with this high-risk tactic? The North must have been fully aware that its nuclear declaration would irritate China, the initiator of the six-party talks and Pyeongyang’s last guardian, on whom it relies for grain and oil supplies, and that it would embarrass South Korea’s Roh Moo-hyun government, which has been advocating the North’s causes even at the risk of sacrificing a half-century-old alliance with the United States.
What North Korea wants is recognition of its status as a nuclear power and a direct deal with Washington. Thus, Pyeongyang has declared that its “weapons will remain [a] nuclear deterrent for self-defense under any circumstances.”
What prompted Pyeongyang to take a collision course at this odd time, when everyone else was looking forward to the resumption of the six-party talks? Judging from the fact that Thursday’s statement quoted it three times, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s remark at her recent confirmation hearing that North Korea was an “outpost of tyranny” seems to be the direct reason for the North’s revolt. Curt Weldon, a U.S. congressman who led a delegation to Pyeongyang in January, conveyed the North’s response: “I don’t think harsh rhetoric helps. It only inflames regimes that are already paranoid about what your ultimate intentions are.”
North Korea’s paranoia about the Bush administration is stated in the declaration: “We cannot spend another four years as we did the past four years and there is no need for us to repeat what we did in those years.”
Another reason seems to be the sense of crisis North Korea has felt at the six-party talks; its traditional allies, China and Russia, have moved to Washington’s side, pressing the North to give up its nuclear program.
What are the options the United States and others at the talks can take?
First, they may accept North Korea’s demands, recognizing it as a nuclear power and accepting its request to deal directly with the United States.
Second, they may continue to exert diplomatic efforts to engage in dialogue with the North, and ultimately resume the six-party talks by inducing it with incentives.
Third, they may put pressure on the North, increasing the level of pressure gradually and threatening it with sanctions and a transfer of the issue to the UN Security Council.
Of course, nobody will agree with the first option. The second option seems to be preferred by the United States and China, as well as South Korea, at the moment. They will, however, soon realize that it is not at all feasible.
First of all, the possibility of North Korea returning to the six-party talks, whatever the incentives, is extremely low. Wang Jiarui, head of the Department of Liaison of the Chinese Communist Party, will visit Pyeongyang soon and try to induce it to return to the talks. Mr. Wang will hear a lot of apologies, but no obedience.
On the other hand, it will be difficult for Washington to beg for the North’s return to the talks, and that without punishment for declaring a violation of the non-proliferation treaty, not to mention incentives. The United States has to consider the international criticism that Washington applies different standards to the nuclear threats posed by North Korea, Iran and Iraq.
The last option is putting pressure on the North, beginning with economic pressure, and increasing it gradually. Theoretically, this sounds reasonable. But a gradual increase of pressure will not work, because the North threatens that any kind of pressure will lead to military conflict. If the United States and its allies decide to exercise pressure on the North, then they should be ready to risk military confrontation. They should assess North Korea’s military capabilities, including its nuclear potential.
Despite its declaration, the nuclear devices in the North’s possession are at a primitive stage. Its delivery system is not adequate in terms of range and accuracy, and its technology for mounting a warhead on the tip of a missile is questionable. What’s more, the North has not yet passed the most important barrier: a nuclear test. The United States can give assurance to the world that its military can deter the North’s threat, and can give warnings to the North by way of sanctions and a transfer of the case to the UN Security Council.
This will create panic in South Korea and China because of the possibility of a second Korean War. China has to worry about the rush of North Korean refugees across its border. The third option is not recommendable.
In retrospect, the nuclear crisis in the peninsula has been prolonged for 12 years since it began with North Korea’s withdrawal from the non-proliferation treaty in 1993. Since then, its neighboring countries have suffered psychological and material losses from the nuclear gambit. Now, if there is no other choice for them but to recognize North Korea as a nuclear power, non-nuclear neighbors will be put in the position of either catering to the North’s needs or joining in a nuclear domino effect. Now is the time for participants in the six-party talks to reflect on their past strategies, and to contemplate the future of nuclear non-proliferation.
* The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo