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Slow progress with North Korea is better than no progress


Chris Jonston - Playing with FireThe Korean crisis has once again captured the world's headlines. North Korea's announcement of a nuclear explosion on 9 October came after years of repeated claims by Pyongyang's rulers that it reserved the right to develop nuclear weapons, to counter Washington's hostile intent.

Several days after the explosion, one question remained unanswered—was the explosion in fact a failure, or even a fake? Within a few hours of the blast, Russia seemed convinced that a nuclear test had been carried out, and estimated its strength at between 5 and 15 kilotons. On the other hand, South Korea, France and the United States were more circumspect, suggesting that the explosion measured less than one kiloton, far smaller than the 12.5 kiloton bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945.

Whatever the truth about the nature and scale of the test, one thing is clear. Pyongyang's motive for the explosion, as for so many of its past actions, is to pressure the United States to enter into direct negotiations. The North Korean regime is desperate to extract further economic and security concessions. In a word, it wants to ensure its survival.

Slow progress with North Korea is better than no progressNorth Korea has been described as a starving, friendless, isolated nation of 23 million people, and its "dear" leader, Kim Jong-il as vain, reclusive and paranoid. Yet behind the invective and periodic tantrums lies a consistent strategy, designed to prop up the regime in the face of immense economic difficulties at home and implacable hostility abroad.

For its part, the United States, despite much bravado, appears to have limited options. North Korea has gone much further than before in its incremental attempts to acquire a nuclear arsenal. The response thus far does not amount to a great deal: a small and temporary reduction of South Korean aid, a stiff verbal rebuke from China, unilateral sanctions by Japan, and the U.S. threat of tough financial and other sanctions to be imposed by the UN Security Council, which Russia and China will substantially dilute. Hardly the apocalypse that some may have expected.

Slow progress with North Korea is better than no progressYet the situation remains highly dangerous. Notwithstanding the constraints bearing upon both Pyongyang and Washington as they consider their next moves, it is not beyond the realm of the possible that one of them will seriously miscalculate and provoke the other into a pre-emptive or retaliatory military strike. Such a move would in all likelihood bring armed hostilities to the entire Northeast Asian region, and may over time provoke a regional nuclear arms race.

The simple truth is that the non-proliferation regime has been seriously if not fatally weakened. The actions of would-be proliferators, notably Iran and North Korea, have exposed the regime's weakness, namely the idea that non-nuclear weapons states can be indefinitely prevented from pursuing nuclear ambitions, while nuclear weapons states maintain and even strengthen their nuclear arsenals.

The policy of nuclear apartheid, fragile at the best of times, now lies in ruins. Indeed, a key lesson that several governments have drawn from the Iraq war—one that has perilous implications for regional and global security—is the opposite of what the United States intended. Saddam Hussein was removed from power, it is argued, because he didn't have nuclear weapons. Had he had them, Iraq would not have been invaded.

Slow progress with North Korea is better than no progressHow, then, might the international community respond to the Korean crisis? Two responses, one short-term and the other long-term, suggest themselves. It is doubtful, to say the least, that sanctions will have the desired effect. Though they will inflict considerable pain on the already suffering people of North Korea, they are most unlikely to weaken the regime, or severely curtail its military plans. Indeed, they may stiffen the regime's resolve to acquire a full-fledged nuclear capability.

Despite periodic setbacks, the "sunshine" policy pursued by South Korea, the six-party talks, and especially the negotiating framework developed during the Clinton years, are suggestive of a more promising strategy for the future. The North Korean regime is more likely to be loosened from its present grip on power by the slow but persistent attempts to change the economic and psychological landscape inside North Korea, than by the external application of brute force. U.S. allies, not least Australia, may have an important role to play in keeping open lines of communication, and making the case for such a long-term strategy.



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Existing comments

The 'sunshine' policy has been a failure. The rhetoric of the USA has been even less effective. It is time for China to stop worrying about it's special economic zones, it's trade surplus and it's undervalued currency and start taking the lead in the international community of states. China is the only country with any influence on North Korea, and it's time it flexed its muscle.

andrew johnson | 17 October 2006  

I think it highly unlikely that China will do all that is necessary to curtail North Korea's activities. You might be right, A Johnson, but you are no realist.

Rodney Graves | 17 October 2006  

Rhetoric is all the United States can offer. They have been so busy in the middle east that they have dropped the ball when it comes to North Korea, a nation that really is a threat to the world.

Peter Connolly | 17 October 2006  

I think the non-proliferation regime has done it's dash. The UN needs to be more involved in restricting the actions of rogue states.

Jane Taylor | 17 October 2006  

both China and South Korea are afraid of a complete collapse as in East Germany. The North Korean Regime are not complete idiots. Economic development which still leaves them in power is what they are seeking. South Korea seem to be trying to achieve this.

john ozanne | 17 October 2006  

Perhaps the collapse of the regime would be for the best though? surely it cannot be in the best interests of the north korean people for this mad dictator to stay in power.

Hillary Atkins | 18 October 2006  

It makes sense for Seoul to appease the north, with all those weapons pointed at it. They are over the barrell of a great many guns. What is unfortunate is that it seems a stalemate is likely. Why could George Dubyah not have tried to stop the North from getting weapons while it had the chance, rather than worrying about Iraq?

Maryanne Malleson | 18 October 2006  

I feel, that Sth Korea has the bigger role to play here. They were quite successful early on, with their "sushine policy", and the racial equality is a real advantage.

Theo Dopheide | 23 October 2006  

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