ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Nuclear North Korea


Nuclear North Korea North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have been a long-running saga, but there is much room for speculation over why it should have chosen to foreground them at this stage, ensuring that they become the most immediate strategic priority for the US and its global allies. On October 8, just as Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was touching down in Seoul after a summit meeting in Beijing, North Korea came out with the triumphal announcement that it had ventured beyond a threshold only eight other countries have dared cross. With the US and Japan leading the way, the UN security council was rapidly being called into session to frame an appropriate response that would leave North Korea few avenues of evasion. As with the provocative missile tests it conducted last July, which raised hackles in Japan and the US, but induced far more moderate reactions in China and South Korea, the Kim Jong Il regime is gambling on the sustenance and perhaps, the widening, of these differences in perception. It is indicative of the relatively weak hand that the US has to play, that the North Korean nuclear tests have stirred up a bitter partisan debate between president Bush’s Republican Party and his predecessor Bill Clinton’s Democrats. At issue is the policy of engagement with North Korea that began in 1994, only to be abruptly terminated by Bush within a month of his assumption ofoffice. The responsibility for this reversal of course was then laid at the doorstep of the North Korean regime, which the Bush cabal insisted, had proved itself incapable of abiding by any agreement concluded in good faith. The infamous jibe, delivered as a frontal rebuke to the visiting South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, a Nobel laureate and architect of the “sunshine” policy of reconciliation with the north, was rapidly proven absolutely false. The plain reason for the change of tack was the unilateralist urge that had a second and more virulent awakening under Bush. Also relevant was the Bush administration’s compelling need to ramp up military budgets and provide for a technologically improbable missile defence system. A threat had to be invented to justify this budgetary profligacy and the doctrine of “rogue states” which designated North Korea in a stellar role came in handy in this respect. In the mandated “Nuclear Posture Review” sent to the US Congress in December 2001, the Bush administration identified the “immediate contingencies” that the US needed to prepare for as “an Iraqi attack on Israel or its neighbours, a North Korean attack on South Korea or a military confrontation over the status of Taiwan”. North Korea and Iraq were characterised as “chronic military concerns” and with the benefit of now knowing what the standards of truth were in the case of Iraq, the world should have a better idea of the significance of the threat from North Korea. The US’ most recent quirky change of direction came in September 2005, when it imposed sweeping financial sanctions against North Korea, just four days after signing a six-party agreement involving China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Selig Harrison, one of the few western commentators with access to the inside track of policy in Pyongyang, has gathered that this was read by North Korea, as final confirmation of the “dysfunctionality” of the Bush administration and its inability to honour any agreement. Japan has been quick to disavow any possibility of amending its policy of not possessing nuclear weapons or permitting their location on its soil. But the North Korean tests could be just the trigger that the right wing element in Japan needs to raise the pitch of its campaign for national rearmament. South Korea, meanwhile, has seen a surge in domestic support for its own nuclear programme, which included a uranium enrichment experiment as recently as 2000. However, South Korea is also aware that the “sunshine policy” has brought it undoubted gains. North Korean “regime change” is inherent in the “sunshine policy”, since the gradual opening up of contacts on the peninsula would induce a change in the political culture and modes of economic organisation in the world’s most secluded state. But the US views the North Korean tests as an opportunity to impose “regime change” on terms that

it would unilaterally like to dictate. Without the active endorsement of China and South Korea though, the game-plan is unlikely to proceed very far. And certainly neither of these countries is anxious to set off a political implosion in its near neighbourhood.

Beyond east Asia, the question is how the world is going to live with a spread in the development of nuclear weapons, which it must now take for granted. If proof was indeed needed about the hypocrisy of the “non-proliferation” strategy to contain nuclear weapons, the North Korean test provides it. The “exclusive” nuclear club (of which India is so desperate to be acknowledged as a member) threatens to become an expanding association of 20 plus countries. If the world is serious about removing the scourge of nuclear weapons, then this is as good a time as any for the established nuclear powers to move towards complete disarmament. That, of course, would require the US to take the lead in promising to eventually destroy its arsenal. If that is a utopian dream, the alternative is Armageddon. EPW

Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006

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