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Business Times - 11 Oct 2006
Cool heads needed to defuse crisis
There is not much the US can do, short of invading N Korea and sparking a war, to prevent Pyongyang from going nuclear
By LEON HADAR
NORTH Korea has now forced itself into the global nuclear-weapons club by conducting a nuclear test over the weekend. And even US President George W Bush, who fancies himself as the chairman of this exclusive club and its unofficial bouncer, finds himself in the same position that his predecessor president Bill Clinton had been when India and Pakistan conducted underground nuclear tests in 1998 and asserted their status as nuclear powers.
Mr Bush can try to mobilise America's allies and the international community against the new kid in the nuclear bloc, but there is not much that Washington can do - short of invading North Korea and sparking a bloody regional war - to prevent Pyongyang from going nuclear. The only realistic option available to Washington and its allies is to try to contain and deter Kim Jong-il's regime from using its nuclear weapons against its neighbours or perhaps even against the United States (the North Korean Taepodong-2 missile has the potential to reach US territory).
That is certainly bad news for the hawks in the Bush Administration, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who have opposed any attempt to diplomatically engage Pyongyang and suggested that the Americans might have no other choice but to take out North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programmes.
Under the influence of US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, the Bush Administration has decided to pursue the diplomatic path in dealing with North Korea and together with Japan, China, Russia and South Korea held talks to persuade Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear weapons programmes since October 2002, when the reclusive state acknowledged breaking a 1994 agreement to end its atomic weapons plans.
But North Korea has refused to return to the six-nations talks until the US removes economic sanctions imposed last October. At the same time, the Bush Administration has rejected the idea backed by China and South Korea of holding direct bilateral talks with the North Koreans.
It seems that the diplomatic multilateral path is the one Washington would pursue in the aftermath of the North Korean nuclear test. Indeed, after Mr Bush condemned North Korea's reported nuclear test, he demanded the United Nations take quick and decisive action. 'North Korea has defied the will of the international community and the international community will respond,' Mr Bush said at the White House on Monday.
'The United States remains committed to diplomacy, and we will continue to protect ourselves and our interests,' he added.
Mr Bush also stressed that North Korea's actions were 'unacceptable' and would only raise tensions in the world and further isolate the Pyongyang which he described in a 2002 speech as a member of the 'Axis of Evil' together with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Iran.
The UN Security Council met in closed session in New York on Monday to craft a response. US officials would like the UN to sanction the North Koreans, including restrictions on trade and financial dealings and a blockade requiring inspections of all ships moving to and from the country. The US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton said he wanted a resolution that includes the threat of military action.
But China and South Korea are expected to resist threatening North Korea with the use of military force. Similarly, US proposals to impose an air and naval blockade on North Korea will probably also be considered by the Chinese as reckless. A blockade is considered an act of war under international law and the North Korean leadership might well consider it a prelude to a US-led attack and react accordingly.
Even more irresponsible are the proposals by American hawks that the United States launch air strikes against North Korea's nuclear installations and missile sites.
That would be an incredibly dangerous strategy that could lead Pyongyang to respond with attacks on targets in South Korea and Japan and triggering a general war and a humanitarian disaster in North-east Asia.
Indeed, North Korea is capable of firing about 300,000 artillery shells an hour into South Korea's capital city, Seoul.
And an all-out war on the peninsula would risk the lives of millions of South Koreans as well as the lives of the US troops stationed in South Korea.
It should be recalled that when Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China acquired nuclear military capability, many western officials and analysts had responded with hysterical calls that urged the Americans to launch preemptive strikes against those two powers.
But the United Stated ended up embracing a policy of containment and deterrence vis-a-vis Moscow and Beijing which proved to be very effective. There is no reason why the same policy would not work in dealing with the threat of a weaker North Korea facing the United States and its (nuclear) allies.
Moreover, creative US diplomacy could probably seek to work with China, South Korea and Japan to transform the current crisis into an opportunity for establishing an informal security system in the region to deter North Korea while trying to weaken and subvert the regime in Pyongyang and prepare for its eventual collapse.
The Bush Administration could also take a bold diplomatic action by proposing bilateral negotiations with North Korea on a wide range of issues in exchange for a clear commitment to freeze its nuclear military programme.
Unfortunately, diplomatic boldness and creativity is something that is missing in Washington these days as the Bush Administration is also continuing to pursue what seems to be an ineffective policy to prevent Iran - another member of the Axis of Evil - from pursuing the nuclear military path after it invaded Iraq, the third member of the 'Axis', in order to dismantle its nonexistent nuclear military capability.
The main danger is that this same US diplomatic ineffectiveness - talking loudly and carrying a short stick - could end up encouraging other states in the region, including Japan and Taiwan that they cannot count on US leadership and need to join the nuclear club in order to protect their interests.
Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.