December 3rd 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: HIGHER EDUCATION: Top university accused of elitism

EDITORIAL: Trade talks: smoke and mirrors

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Workplace changes set to change societal fabric

SCHOOLS: Vouchers for schools - giving parents choice

PRIMARY PRODUCTION: Advantages of single-desk for Australian wheat

SUGAR DEREGULATION: Beattie to abolish single selling-desk

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Working women and pensions / One hand washes another: European-style / Those were the days, my friend / The burning Bush

ABORTION PILL: Part of the disease, not part of the cure

OPINION: The difficult dilemma of Australia's Muslims

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Why North Korea got one more chance

CULTURE AND SOCIETY: Great Russian writers on the riddle of humanity

CINEMA: Three Australian films fall flat: The Proposition, Jewboy and Little Fish

BOOKS: The Lost Executioner: A Story of the Khmer Rouge, by Nic Dunlop

BOOKS: Victoria Cross: Australia's Finest and the Battles They Fought, by Anthony Staunton

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Why North Korea got one more chance

by Dr Sharif Shuja

News Weekly, December 3, 2005
South Korea's President Roh Moo-huyn's reliance on engagement with communist North Korea has restrained the White House's ability to pursue a unilateral policy of "neo-containment", writes Dr Sharif Shuja.

It is an historical irony that the most reclusive country of Northeast Asia has become the epicentre of strategic concern, both regionally and globally, and poses a strategic challenge to the most powerful nation on earth, the United States.

This is a paradox. How can a "failed state", such as North Korea, be a strategic threat to a superpower? The answer lies in its non-compliance with the rules of global conduct under Western auspices. This has earned it the titles of pariah state, rogue state, failed state and member of the post 9/11 "axis of evil".

North Korea's hostile rhetoric and nuclear weaponry give the US good grounds for fearing a physical attack on its own soldiers stationed in South Korea, as well as possible support for anti-US terrorists in a global guerrilla campaign.

Agreement abrogated

North Korea abandoned a 1994 agreement with the then US Clinton Administration to dismantle its nuclear program. In December 2002, it expelled inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il has allowed two million of his compatriots to die of starvation and has imprisoned at least 200,000 others.

The US is understandably alarmed at the global threat such a murderous régime might pose should it acquire nuclear weaponry and supply any of it to terrorists.

Why are the North Koreans so determined to build their own nuclear arsenal?

There are four possible uses for nuclear weapons: for deterrence, for attacking another country, as an export earner, and as a bargaining chip in negotiations.

Nuclear weaponry would certainly deter a US attack, but a North Korean use of that tiny deterrent force, whether in defence or attack, would be suicidal.

After the revelations about Pakistan's nuclear black-market operations, any Korean export of nuclear technology would be virtually impossible. Moreover, Korea has no exports other than narcotics, missiles and forced labour. That means its real purpose with nuclear weaponry is to use it as a bargaining chip in exchange for economic benefits and security guarantees.

The US, in response to North Korea's nuclear ambitions, seems to have adopted a three-goal strategy to: (a) contain nuclear weapons, (b) establish a missile defence, and (c) begin work on toppling Kim Jong-il.

The US's strategy has created discord with Seoul. President George W. Bush confronted former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and urged him to cease "appeasing" North Korea. He similarly urged Kim's successor Roh Moo-hyun to stop "pandering" to North Korea.

To defuse the nuclear stand-off peacefully, however, the US needs to pursue a diplomatic approach, one in which Pyongyang has the freedom to transform itself into a "normal state".

The US, after having toppled dictatorships in Afghanistan and Iraq following the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, might have contemplated getting rid of Kim Jong-il by military means; but this would be a very dangerous venture.

It could provoke a war with China, or at least risk stirring up extreme Chinese hostility.

But such US action is hard to envisage, as opposition at home would be too fierce. Lacking other options, America has now decided to engage with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun has sustained his Government's engagement with North Korea and not bowed to President Bush's assertive unilateralism. Some have called Roh's stance "anti-American"; but Roh's defenders would say his stance is pro-Korean as it promotes Koreans' foremost priority - peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Roh's policy of "economic co-operation" has reassured Pyongyang of Seoul's sincerity in promoting national reconciliation. Also, his policies have nurtured Pyongyang's sense of security by demonstrating that Seoul is in fact asserting a significant degree of independence from President Bush's preference for a much more confrontational and coercive approach to North Korea.

Restrained White House

In fact, Roh's reliance on engagement has restrained Bush's ability to unilaterally pursue his "neo-containment" of North Korea, both in terms of economic sanctions and possible military action, and has profoundly affected both Washington's and North Korea's approach to resolving the nuclear issue.

South Korea's Unification Minister Chun Dong-young visited the DPRK and had talks with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang on June 17. The talks produced extraordinary results.

Kim's indication of North Korea's return to the stalled multilateral talks in Beijing in July was a significant departure from Pyongyang's past insistence that it would discuss the nuclear issue only with the US. Kim's comments about North Korea's possible return to the six-party talks, re-entry into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), acceptance of the IAEA inspections, and abandonment of its missile development program must have attracted Washington's attention.

The leaders of South Korea and the US held summit talks in Washington in June and reaffirmed their position of pursuing a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue. The reaffirmation means that Presidents Roh and Bush have agreed to give North Korea one more chance.

The two leaders promised that the US would give multilateral security guarantees and economic aid to North Korea, and eventually promote "more normal relations" with the North, if Pyongyang gave up its nuclear program.

President Bush and Kim Jong-il have both felt compelled to adjust their respective strategies regarding the six-party talks. This process, according to Dr C. Kenneth Quinones, former North Korea affairs director at the US Department of State, "has taken one year of intense quiet diplomacy, but Seoul's patience and persistence, in conjunction with China's collaboration, have paid handsome dividends. Washington and Pyongyang have finally agreed to halt their tension-heightening war of words and instead to demonstrate reciprocal flexibility to restart the six-party talks". (, July 24, 2005).

The six-nation talks began on September 13, with North Korea finally signing a pact on nuclear arms on September 19.

The agreement offers new hope for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. Under the deal, North Korea has agreed to abandon "all nuclear weapons" and "existing nuclear programs" and return at an early date to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, from which it withdrew in January 2003. It has also agreed to allow inspections by the IAEA. In return, the other parties will provide Pyongyang with energy, investment, aid and security guarantees that ensure the peninsula is non-nuclear.

This agreement is a highly welcome development. It appears that Pyongyang understood that fostering nuclear intentions would only lead to further isolation and economic hardship as the possession of nuclear weapons would not be an asset to its security and economy but would only end up being a burden.

The US affirmed that it had no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and no intention to attack North Korea. Japan and the US pledged to work towards normal diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US also said they were willing to provide energy assistance to North Korea, with South Korea repeating an offer to supply two million kilowatts of power from its electricity grid. The agreement concedes North Korea's right to a light-water nuclear reactor - a concession Bush didn't want to make at this stage.

The agreement is fragile, but, if it holds together, it will defuse one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints and remove one of the deepest concerns for regional defence planners.

Too good to refuse

From the start of the six-party process two years ago, the US has urged China to bring Pyongyang to a deal. China, which has the most powerful and direct influence over North Korea, played a major role in pressuring the North Koreans to accept an offer too good to refuse.

In an article in the New York Times (September 20, 2005), Joseph Kahn and David Sanger said the Chinese extracted this draft deal from a reluctant North Korea and told the Americans they had only "hours to take it or leave it". Bush gave his approval after long talks with his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. China, in effect, has become medi-ator between Bush and Kim.

South Korea can also claim considerable credit for this significant diplomatic accomplishment. Seoul helped restrain the level of tension and promoted an atmosphere conducive to diplomacy during the US-North Korea duelling. It also tempered Pyongyang's impulsiveness and provided economic inducements for North Korea to pursue diplomacy.

The quicker North Korea can be brought into the open the better. That means speedily getting inspectors into the country, supplying the electricity and other assistance it wants, and normalising diplomatic relations. The only way to deal with a rogue state is to entice it back into the bigger community of nations.

Professor James Cotton at the Australian Defence Force Academy said: "This policy represents a major modification of the ambitious Bush axis doctrine. From being implacably opposed two years ago to any form of concession or reward to a recidivist violator of agreements, the US is now prepared to contemplate compensation and diplomatic recognition. North Korea is even free to reprocess further plutonium at its Yongbyon facilities, at least until the next six-party talks in November." (The Australian, September 21, 2005).

According to Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, the agreement is an "important first step". He pledges that Australia is ready to offer substantive support in energy, bilateral development aid and safeguard expertise. Australia already has diplomatic relations with North Korea.

Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said: "The fact that North Korea has promised for the first time to abandon its nuclear weapons in a verifiable way will serve as an important basis for realising denuclearisation."

While the declared goal of the talks was "the verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula", North Korea reserves its right to "peaceful uses of nuclear energy" and it will get a light-water reactor. Moreover, North Korea appears to have agreed to abandon nuclear weapons without having to declare and produce whatever nuclear weapons it has.

The proof of North Korea's intentions will be whether it will submit to, and cooperate with, a tight and intrusive international verification regime. That remains to be seen.

  • Dr Sharif Shuja is research associate at Monash University's Global Terrorism Research Unit.

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