Tuesday, October 10, 2006

North Korea won't blink in the game of nuclear chicken

By Wenran Jiang
(Oct 10, 2006)
The Globe and Mail

In defiance of warnings from the international community, Pyongyang carried out its long-threatened nuclear weapons test yesterday, setting off worldwide condemnation and concern over nuclear arms proliferation in the region and around the globe.

Like Pyongyang's launch of seven missiles on July 4, its choice of timing in going nuclear was no accident. The United States has recently tightened its sanctions against North Korea, which views the measures as a declaration of war, and Beijing appears to be shifting away from its traditional support of the regime of Kim Jong-il. As well, South Korea's foreign minister is about to be voted in as the new United Nations Secretary-General, and Japan's new prime minister, a hard-liner against Pyongyang, is being welcomed in both Beijing and Seoul this week to resume long-interrupted summit diplomacy. Left behind, North Korea's own demands have failed to register a sympathetic hearing in the world.

For years, many believed that North Korea was just bluffing. How could an isolated, technologically backward, small Communist dictatorship with a starving population pull off a sophisticated nuclear arms operation that only half a dozen states could achieve. Such an attitude only propelled Pyongyang to be more resolute in proving its credentials. By failing to address repeated warning signs seriously, the world now must pay the price of either living with a nuclear North Korea or living without it.

For the United States, the test represents another foreign policy blunder of the Bush administration. Since 2000, Washington has been more obsessed with ending the Kim regime than ending its nuclear program. It discontinued the Clinton administration's 1994 "framework agreement" that provided aid to Pyongyang in exchange for the latter's suspension of its nuclear program. The Bush team labelled North Korea a "rogue state," part of an "axis of evil" and an "outpost of tyranny." After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Pyongyang reactivated its nuclear operation hoping to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein.

In the ensuing six-party talks designed to resolve the crisis, involving South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, the U.S. took a hard-line position. Instead of fully engaging North Korea and providing security guarantees, Washington sought to press Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambition without preconditions. Mr. Kim, convinced that the current U.S. government has no intention of normalizing relations with North Korea, has refused to return to the negotiating table.

Yesterday's test is a wakeup call for the Bush hawks. Instead of a regime collapse, Pyongyang now has a nuclear arsenal of some seven to 10 weapons (in contrast with having a suspended nuclear facility and, at most, one or two nuclear bombs back in 2000). The cost of now reversing the course, either by carrot or stick, will be much higher.

For China, Pyongyang's nuclear escalation is a slap in the face at the worst time. Chinese leaders have spent much energy in playing host to the six-party talks over the past few years, trying to broker a compromise between North Korea and the United States, only to be frustrated by both sides. Beijing is facing mounting domestic challenges and needs a stable international environment, especially good relations with its trading partners -- the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

But unlike what is often portrayed in the press or argued by Bush administration supporters, Beijing's leverage over the secluded North Korea is not unlimited. Yes, China lost more than one million lives to save the North from being wiped out by U.S. forces in the Korean War in the early 1950s, and, yes, it is the de facto ally of the Kim regime, economically sustaining it from collapse.

But this doesn't automatically make North Korea a Chinese patron. In fact, Pyongyang has been angered by China's recent decision to join Washington's financial sanctions against the North, by China's siding with others in the UN in condemning the North Korean missiles test in July and by Beijing's warming relations with Japan's hawkish prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who came to prominence in Japanese politics largely through bashing Pyongyang. By moving away from its neutral position between Pyongyang and Washington, Beijing's leverage over North Korea, limited in the first place, is weakened rather than strengthened.

And sandwiched between the big powers, South Korea is the most vulnerable of all due to its close geographic location to the North.

Seoul has pursued a "sunshine policy" of economic co-operation and political engagement with Pyongyang for some time. The lack of support from the Bush administration has strained its allied relationship with Washington. Now, amidst the outrage and disappointment, the South must soberly reflect on what to do next.

Christopher Hill, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Asia Pacific affairs, warned recently that North Korea can have either nuclear weapons or a future, but not both. Pyongyang, backed into a corner and desperate for regime survival, is not blinking in this high-stake game of chicken. The challenge for the Security Council, including the United States, is to go beyond tough words and come up with a well-thought-out solution to the crisis.

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