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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
May 19, 2003

Pyongyang's Dangerous Game

Ralph Cossa (President of the Pacific Forum CSIS, Hawaii, U.S.A)

What exactly did North Korea claim or admit to and in what context? And, how has this affected the Bush administration's approach toward dealing with Pyongyang? The answer is: I'm not sure . . . and neither are most of the reporters and "experts" who have been commenting on the April 23-25 Beijing "talk about talks" and its aftermath, based on unidentified "informed sources" or "unnamed officials."

This much is clear. North Korea has been inching ever closer to admitting that it has, at a minimum, a nuclear-weapons program, if not the weapons themselves. Reports of whispers in the ear of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly in Beijing aside, Pyongyang has yet to officially and unambiguously make such a claim, however, while denying some (but not all) of the allegations.

There are, of course, some good reasons the North may want the world, and more specifically the Bush administration, to think that it is a nuclear-weapons state. First appears to be the belief -- perhaps mistaken -- that the possession of nuclear weapons may be an insurance policy against North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's regime meeting the same fate as former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's. This, plus the fact that threats appear to be Pyongyang's leading export, and the only thing that, in the past, has brought handouts or garnered North Korea serious attention on the international stage.

But there are also some downsides. In his inauguration address, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun stated that North Korea could either enjoy the benefits of South Korean and international trade and assistance or it could go down the nuclear path; it was a clear either-or choice. Russia has also stated that it would be forced to reconsider its opposition to sanctions or other harsh measures if North Korea were to come out of the nuclear closet and China has forcefully warned that such a step would not be in the North's interests.

So Pyongyang's challenge is to be specific enough to convince the Bush administration that it has nuclear weapons while being vague enough to not push its neighbors into seeking retribution; hence its apparent decision to have its representative in Beijing make private assertions to Kelly out of earshot of others.

This is a dangerous game, for more than one reason. The great irony is that North Korea already has a sufficient security blanket to keep it from being an obvious target of the Bush administration; namely its ability to wreak havoc in the South with its massive conventional military forces. That, plus the commitment of the Roh government to a policy of engagement, since any serious U.S. military action against Pyongyang would almost certainly require Seoul's consent, if not approval. But this restraint could come to an end if the North pushes too far in its nuclear adventurism. And the threat of North Korea mass producing nuclear weapons, or even highly enriched uranium or plutonium (contained in the spent fuel rods Pyongyang claims it is either already or soon will be reprocessing) could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

The consequences of not responding, with sanctions and censure, if not with surgical military force, at some point become less serious than the consequences of doing nothing, and thus allowing Pyongyang to produce and possibly export such weapons or weapons-grade materials.

Press reporting to the contrary, the Bush administration has made it clear that its overall policy toward the North's nuclear program is unchanged: It seeks a complete, verifiable end to Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons program and is also intent on preventing the North from exporting any nuclear weapons, materials or hardware. It also continues to seek a diplomatic, multilateral solution while keeping all options on the table.

What happens next remains unclear. Pyongyang apparently did offer to swap some if not all of its nuclear programs for "considerable" aid, putting forth a "bold offer" that appears unacceptable to Washington (as any opening bargaining position should be expected to be). Additional "talks about talks" following the Beijing format appear likely, although serious negotiations will likely not take place until Washington has secured a seat at the table for Seoul and Tokyo or, at a minimum, obtained their public support once again to proceed. This is why U.S. President George W. Bush's upcoming meetings with Roh and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi are so important.

Bush's first meeting with Roh, this week in Washington, is particularly significant, given the perception that the two sides remain far apart in their preferred approach toward Pyongyang. The two allies will try to narrow this gap by reaffirming the centrality and continued relevance of the U.S.-South Korea alliance and the need for North Korea to immediately and verifiably put an end to its suspected nuclear-weapons programs. Both will express their mutual commitment toward pursuing a diplomatic solution, although here some acknowledgment by Roh that other options exist as a last resort could be helpful.

Roh also needs to clarify how active a role Seoul expects or demands in subsequent "multilateral" negotiations. For his part, Bush needs to be more specific on just what North Korea claimed or offered and how flexible the U.S. intends to be in its response. While the Bush administration's attempts at quiet diplomacy are to be applauded, a more concerted effort at rumor control is clearly needed.

A firmly stated, more clearly defined blueprint of the preferred road ahead could also help motivate disparate administration elements to speak with more clarity and consistency, something all observers on both sides of the Pacific would find refreshing.

(This article originally appeared in the May 15, 2003 issue of The Japan Times. Do not quote without the author's permission)

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