Nothing much can be done about North Korea

Business Times - 28 May 2009

Nothing much can be done about North Korea

US should get its allies to work on managing Pyongyang's emergence as a nuclear power


NORTH Korea's defiant nuclear test has been condemned by the US and several other governments, including Russia, Japan, the European Union, as well as by China, Pyongyang's closest ally. And it has also prompted calls for more economic sanctions against the regime led by Kim Jong Il.

An emergency session of the 15-member United Nations Security Council, including the US and China, unanimously condemned the nuclear test on Monday.

Experts have concluded that the North Korean programme's first nuclear test was a partial failure. But Monday's explosion was comparable to the American atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II, suggesting that North Korea has a workable nuclear device and in on its way to joining the exclusive club of nuclear powers.

That development and the possibility that North Korea could put nuclear warheads on its missiles has ignited fear among that nation's neighbours, South Korea and Japan.

Japanese officials have stated that the North Korean nuclear test poses a threat to its national security. And South Korea has convened a meeting of its National Security Council and put troops along the border on high alert. Seoul and Tokyo would like to see the US leading a renewed international effort to punish Pyongyang.

But notwithstanding North Korea's current diplomatic and economic isolation, it does not seem that economic sanctions have had any major effect on Pyongyang's behaviour. That has left Washington and its diplomatic partners with very few options in dealing with the nuclear status of North Korea.

Indeed, Washington has been concerned that a North Korean nuclear test could produce a new nuclear arms race in North Asia, creating pressure on Tokyo and Seoul to also go nuclear in order to deter Pyongyang. That explains why US President Barack Obama reaffirmed on Monday the American commitment to defend South Korea and Japan against any aggression from North Korea.

'North Korea's actions endanger the people of North-east Asia. They are a blatant violation of international law, and they contradict North Korea's own prior commitments,' Mr Obama said.

'We will work with our friends and allies to stand up to this behaviour, and we will redouble our efforts towards a more robust international non-proliferation regime that all countries have responsibilities to meet.'

The Obama administration entered office embracing a more accommodative approach towards Pyongyang than its predecessor, and offering to engage North Korea with high-level talks. But that ended when the North Koreans tested a long-range missile last month.

And now - in what some experts describe as Mr Obama's most serious national security test since his inauguration as president - the US administration seems to be searching for new ways to force the North Koreans to reverse its nuclear policy, as it is becoming clear that UN sanctions and US efforts to end international financing for North Korea's nuclear programme have failed to deter Pyongyang's plans.

The only remaining hope in Washington is that China, which has been reluctant to impose the sanctions already in place on North Korea, will decide now to join the US and other governments in a forceful action against North Korea.

Hence, the conventional wisdom is that China - as the only power with serious diplomatic and economic leverage on North Korean policy - will use it and force Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table in the form of the six-party talks (comprising the US, North Korea, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea) and rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Among other things, China could put pressure on the North Koreans by threatening to seize the US$2 billion in assets that the North Koreans have in Chinese banks.

But will China be willing to take such steps, and will they help change North Korean policy? In fact, all the indications are that the North Koreans have decided to develop a nuclear military arsenal and that the only option available now to the US and its diplomatic partners (and, in particular, China) is to deal with that reality by ensuring that North Korea does not emerge as a direct threat to Japan and South Korea, and that Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal remains relatively small and that it has little ability to project this force beyond the Korean peninsula.

Adding to the uncertainly in Washington and other capitals over North Korea's nuclear designs is the seemingly deteriorating health of Kim Jong Il and the speculations that power in Pyongyang will soon be transferred to his 24-year-old son.

Washington lost its ability to directly influence North Korean policies after ex-president George W Bush decided to reverse the policies of his predecessor Bill Clinton of holding bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang.

Instead, Mr Bush opted for the long and futile multilateral setting of the six-party talks. Recognising the reality in which the constraints operating on the American military and US diplomacy have reduced its leverage over Pyongyang, Washington should encourage the Chinese to work together with South Korea and Japan in managing - as opposed to ending - the emergence of North Korea as a nuclear power.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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