Outside View: North Korea's nuclear news

By NICHOLAS EBERSTADT, RICHARD ELLINGS and JOSEPH FER, A UPI Outside view commentary  |  Oct. 31, 2002 at 3:22 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 29 (UPI) -- On Oct. 16, the U.S. State Department announced that in Oct. 3-5 meetings with Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly in Pyongyang, the North Korean leadership acknowledged that it has been secretly developing nuclear weapons for years in violation of international agreements, and claimed that it now possessed "more powerful" weapons, as well.

These new actions by the North Korean government fit into a consistent pattern demonstrated since at least the early 1990s. Pyongyang has made it a practice to behave badly, and then expect to be rewarded. It is a carrot and stick approach, with a major caveat: the West supplies the carrots and North Korea the stick.

Although many analysts say Pyongyang is ready for "discussions," it may be more of the case that Pyongyang is ready to list demands. The weapons of mass destruction program is Pyongyang's primary pillar of diplomacy. It is unlikely the North Korean government will in fact agree to give up the one card that it has to play, and which it has relied on for economic assistance for nearly a decade.

Some reports suggest that Pyongyang may be less than a year away from being able to produce six crude nuclear bombs annually. The Bush administration's diplomatic mettle will be tested, as it will be forced to coordinate policy with Russia, South Korea, Japan, and most importantly, China.

The administration of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung at the moment seems uncommitted to any specific response to the North's newest nuclear provocation. South Korean national security adviser Yim Sung-joon tried to sound optimistic, saying Seoul "regards (the admission) as a sign North Korea is willing to resolve this problem through dialogue", while Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun took the occasion as an opportunity to criticize the United States -- implying that Kelly's depiction of his Pyongyang talks was inaccurate, possibly due to American incompetence.

The revelation will undoubtedly be one of the most salient issues in the upcoming South Korean presidential election. Lee Hoi-chang, who is widely seen as pro-American, currently leads in most polls. Chung Mong-joon, heir to Hyundai empire, is running a close second, but as a newcomer to the national stage his views of South-North relations have not yet been fully spelled out.

The Japanese government, though also recently stung by North Korean revelations (of the kidnapping of Japanese citizens -- and the probable killing of some of those abductees), similarly and cautiously called for renewed dialogue. Recent public opinion in Japan, however, appears inclined toward a less conciliatory policy toward North Korea.

The Chinese government has expressed impatience and displeasure with North Korea in recent months, as evidenced by the arrest of the businessman Yang Bin who had been personally anointed by Pyongyang to oversee a free-trade zone along the Sino-North Korean border.

As many analysts have pointed out, China has accommodated the United States in recent months, and Washington is expected to press for strong support from Beijing.

The Russian government has also voiced support for the United States in this matter, and insists that Pyongyang is in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Analysts in Washington have been scrambling to interpret the meaning of North Korea's gambit. Many are calling for a hard-line response, citing Pyongyang's spotty track record and its penchant for extortion. Some call for the U.S. government to sit down and deal with Pyongyang as it would any other rational government.

The problem, however, for Washington is: who will be the negotiating partner in Pyongyang if an accommodation is to be reached? Kang Sok-ju signed the 1994 Geneva accord, but this month admitted his country's nuclear deception to Kelly; he is thus surely discredited in the eyes of the United States. The only other alternative is perhaps North Korean leader Kim Jong il himself. But his credibility has been spoiled as well, for only he could have given permission for the nuclear cheating, and then the subsequent revelation.

Given the wholesale lack of reliability of the North Korean leadership on the nuclear issue, it will be very difficult for the United States to accept any deal unless Pyongyang agrees to an immediate halt in its program and provide unfettered access to all facilities by international inspectors. U.S. Ambassador in Seoul Thomas Hubbard doubts a verifiable agreement can be reached: "We have very little basis for trust...[and] for confidence that further dialogue will lead to a solution."

The Bush administration has been given the opportunity to recast its policy toward North Korea, a policy that is no longer beholden to an agreement struck nearly a decade ago, and whose efficacy had been in question for several years now. The Bush administration is wisely lining up international support.

Whatever actions it may take, the United States needs to take into account the fact that it is a global power; and what it decides has global implications and sets global precedents. The Bush administration can now fashion its own North Korea policy, one that takes a more a sober approach based upon the hard facts of taking shape in North Korea.

(Nicholas Eberstadt works at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Richard Ellings and Joseph Ferguson are with the National Bureau of Asian Research in Seattle Wash.)

("Outside View" commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of important global issues.)

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