ASIA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
North Korean time bomb still ticking
, August 9, 2003
Intelligence reports that krypton - an inert gas and a by-product of plutonium reprocessing - has been detected in the atmosphere near where North Korea claims to have been reprocessing spent fuel rods, has heightened tensions in an already volatile region.
According to William Perry, US Defence Secretary during the Clinton Administration, the US and North Korea are drifting towards war.
"I think we are losing control," Perry told the Washington Post
adding, "It was manageable six months ago if we did the right things, but we haven't done the right things."
What is the situation and what are the options?Backward and belligerent
North Korea is probably the most repressive and totalitarian regime on earth. It runs prison camps that rival those of Hitler and Stalin. It is desperately poor and without food aid from the rest of the world - including the US and South Korea - even more of its population would be starving. Its industry is moribund and its collective farms have been a social and economic disaster.
The regime stays afloat by "foreign trade," which includes selling missile technology, gold mined by slave labour and narcotics. The sole aim of the regime is self-maintenance - i.e., staying in power. "Crimes" include listening to foreign radio broadcasts, making mild criticisms of the regime and disobeying the orders of petty officials.
The 1994 agreements with the Clinton Administration - where the US traded favours in return for a halt to the North Korean nuclear weapons program - defused a dangerous situation, but didn't stop North Korea developing nuclear weapons. In fact, intelligence sources estimate that North Korea already has several nuclear bombs.
The South Koreans are in denial. The capital, Seoul, is within range of North Korean artillery. Thus, it would not take a nuclear weapon, but only an old-fashioned sustained artillery barrage to turn the city into a smoking ruin.
China is desperate to halt the slide into war, as a war could do untold harm to its economic growth. China's most experienced "Korea hand", Vice-Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo, was recently in Pyongyang, where he delivered North Korean leader Kim Jong-il a personal message from Chinese leader Hu Jingtao. Dai later travelled to Washington for talks with the Bush Administration.
According to John J. Tkacik Jr, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington and retired diplomat with extensive experience in East Asia, China may be faced with the unpleasant dilemma of creating an unsettling precedent for its leaders - getting rid of the regime in Pyongyang.
"Endorsing regime change in a formerly stalwart ally would be a radical reversal for Beijing. But a combination of US pressure and Kim Jong-il's increasingly dangerous antics, seems to be pushing China inexorably in that direction," Tkacik said in his Asian Wall Street Journal
What are the option for the US and its allies? In the first place, North Korea has never kept agreements and has broken every condition set by the Clinton Administration for ceasing its development of nuclear weapons.
The immediate fear is not that the North Koreans may launch a missile against the US West Coast or a target in Japan, but that the North Koreans may sell a nuclear device to terrorists for use against an American city.
This is not implausible, as the North Koreans will sell anything for hard currency.
Former Secretary of Defense Perry holds hopes for "coercive diplomacy", with offers of trade and so on backed by force. "You have to offer something, but you have to have an iron fist behind the offer," Perry said in his interview with the Washington Post
The US has been refusing to negotiate face to face with North Korea, insisting it is a regional problem. The truth is that without some form of action from China, such as cutting off desperately needed fuel oil and other trade, North Korea is unlikely to reconsider its present belligerence.
In the end, either Perry's "coercive diplomacy" will work, or the regime must change. The other alternative is war. A proposed "surgical strike" to destroy North Korea's nuclear capability might have worked in 1994, but it is unlikely to work in the current state of tension.
The other alternative is war. This will not be short and relatively bloodless like the Iraq war, and the casualties would be enormous, because the US would have to use maximum force to achieve its war aims, or risk a bloody counter attack by North Korea.
US President George W. Bush has made no secret that he regards Kim Jong-il as an odious creature and this will mediate any outcome. The US State Department will opt for diplomacy as usual, but the truth is hostilities in some form may be a lot closer than we think.
- Jeff Babb is an editor with The China Post, Taiwan's leading English-language daily newspaper