April 5th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Iraq war: will it change everything?

EDITORIAL: Bushfires: urgent action needed

Queensland: Beattie follows Canberra on embryo experimentation

Water rights: an emerging political issue in the Murray Darling Basin

Straws in the Wind: Varieties of folly / With us or against us / Cue for a song / Hatred

NSW Election: Bob Carr's next four years

Trade deal: what will Washington do?

Euthanasia: Victorian Tribunal orders death by starvation

Has privatisation been successful?

Letters: The cost of the Victorian bushfires (letter)

How taxation hits families

School students, demonstrations and the New Civics

ASIA: North Korea's nuclear game

SARS: China the epicentre of world flu outbreaks

BOOKS: On Enlightenment, by David Stove

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North Korea's nuclear game

by Dr Sharif Shuja

News Weekly, April 5, 2003
North Korea is a country condemned by President Bush in his January 19, 2002, State of the Union address because it has "a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction while starving its citizens." States like North Korea, Iran and Iraq, the President said, "constitute an axis of evil" and "threaten the peace of the world".

Although North Korea is very poor and relatively small, it has the fourth largest army in the world, more than one million soldiers, and has developed and tested ballistic missiles. And for some time it has been secretly developing a nuclear weapons program, which it admitted to in October 2002.

In 1994, an agreed framework was developed that allowed supply of two power reactors at a cost of over $4 billion and heavy oil shipments to North Korea in return for Pyongyang kerbing its nuclear power program with its overt military applications. The framework has had a rocky road.

The discovery that North Korea has an active nuclear weapons program - in violation of both its 1994 agreement with the US and its signature on the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) - is a problem for the US and its allies, South Korea and Japan. North Korea's announcement on January 10, 2003, that it intends to withdraw from the NPT will have serious implications for international arms control. The nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula also raises questions about the US.

President Bush scrapped the 1994 nuclear deal arranged by the Clinton administration and stopped US shipments of fuel oil to North Korea. The US also urged its allies, Japan and South Korea, to pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons plans. The Bush administration announced that it would not negotiate anything with North Korea until it does abandon those plans.

North Korea has declared that the Bush administration's "axis of evil" charge and its policy of pre-emptive attacks, like the one threatened on Iraq, amounts to a "declaration of war" that threatens North Korea's existence. North Korea also says that differences can be negotiated. If the US ends its "hostile policy" and does not hinder North Korea's economic development, they say, "our government will resolve all US security concerns through the talks." The US has maintained economic sanctions against North Korea.

The Bush Administration's response to North Korea is very different from its response to Iraq, another nation Bush has included in his "axis of evil". The President has repeatedly threatened that if Iraq does not eliminate its weapons of mass destruction, the US will attack it pre-emptively. But while the evidence of a nuclear weapons program in North Korea is far stronger than in Iraq, the US is not threatening an attack on that country. Instead, it is working for a diplomatic solution.

Among the major reasons for this contrasting approach:

  • North Korea has an army of close to a million near its border with South Korea, an important US ally.

  • North Korean forces are within artillery range of the South Korean capital Seoul, only 30 miles away.

  • the North Korean army also threatens the 37,000 US troops in South Korea.

North Korea's ballistic missile program probably has the capacity to strike another US ally in the region, Japan.

With a crisis developing between North Korea and the US, President Bush announced a major change in US policy. On January 14, 2003, he said that if North Korea abandoned its nuclear weapons program, the US would consider providing it with economic and energy aid and, in time, offer diplomatic and security agreements.

The North Korean officials recently have told an Australian delegation their overriding fear is that the US will push for a regime change, once it has finished with Iraq. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has also told US Secretary of State Colin Powell that North Korea's primary concerns were aid, trade and survival. It continues to express fears about a US attack, despite assurances from Mr Bush that it has no military designs in the wake of Pyongyang's threat to restart its nuclear program.

The DPRK is currently spending around 22 percent of its GNP on defence; yet in absolute terms this is only half the amount spent by the South, which allocates a mere 3.8 percent of its far larger GNP to defence. The economic crisis in the North means that its current level of defence expenditure is unsustainable in the long-term. The USA perceives that, because of the energy crisis facing the DPRK, Pyongyang cannot afford to continue its military exercises.

Given the ROK's superior military weapons, it is not surprising that the North should have sought to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. Nuclear weapons offer Pyongyang a relatively low-cost "strategic equaliser" in its military competition with the South. Furthermore, it would also provide a deterrent to the use of US nuclear weapons against the North's territory in any war on the peninsula.

The USA remains firmly allied to the South, and US troops in combat zones along the border would still act as a "tripwire" in any North/South war. Their involvement in any fighting would trigger a direct American military intervention. Moreover, as an ally of the USA, the South can shelter under a US "nuclear umbrella", as does Japan, without having to acquire nuclear weapons itself. While the South shares the US goal of stopping the North's nuclear program, it appears-that it also wants to avoid the collapse ofthe DPRK regime.

Current problems

North Korea's nuclear program could pose a serious threat to the non-proliferation regime, both as a producer of nuclear weapons and as a potential exporter of nuclear weapons, technology and materials.

The primary US interest and goal is both in checking nuclear proliferation and stopping the North's nuclear weapons program and halting production and sales of longer-range missiles. Some of its missile technology has been exported to the volatile Middle East, and the country regularly appears on the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism.

Pyongyang is thought to have about 50 missiles, and enough material to make one or two nuclear weapons. Missiles and other weapons are about the only hard-currency exports in famine-ridden North Korea. The North Korean threat is a key justification for American military spending, the presence of US troops in Asia and a new theatre missile defence system.

Seoul wants to solve this crisis peacefully. The new South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said, "the way to deal with North Korea is through engagement, rather than confrontation." In other words, he endorses the Sunshine Policy of engagement developed by his predecessor Kim Daejung, which earned him a Nobel Prize.

Coral Bell, an Australian academic, has described America's challenge: "to recognise its own pre-eminence but to conduct its policy as if it were still living in a world of many centres of power". In such a world, the United States will find partners not only by sharing the psychological burdens of leadership, but also by shaping an international order consistent with freedom and democracy.

  • Dr Sharif Shuja teaches international politics at the University of Melbourne

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