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On Point

Light Water Shell Game


by Austin Bay
September 20, 2005

Light water still bedevils Asia's diplomatic heavyweights.

North Korea's demand for light water nuclear reactors, that is.

Monday's hosanna headlines suggested Kim Jong Il's evil regime in Pyongyang had decided to ditch its nuclear weapons program. The North Korean government signed on to a Chinese-sponsored document that appeared to commit Pyongyang to ending "all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs."

Then came Tuesday's "morning after" and the dreary wake-up call: North Korea's Stalinists announced they wouldn't fold their nuclear weapons program until the United States gave them a "light water" atomic energy reactor.

Both the United States and Japan rejected North Korea's demand. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack noted, "This is not the agreement that they signed, and we'll give them some time to reflect on the agreement they signed."

The Pyongyang yo-yo of yes followed by no is reminiscent of the film "Groundhog Day," where a cynical Bill Murray relives the same day ad infinitum. In 1994, North Korea promised to end its weapons programs when the Clinton administration agreed to provide fuel oil and two nuclear reactors designed to generate electricity. Of course, North Korea cheated and proceeded to develop weapons, as well as ballistic missile delivery systems.

But today isn't quite yesterday, because China -- which brokered the "Monday agreement" -- has now put its prestige on the line.

Here's the background: A nuclear-armed, impoverished rogue in one of the planet's most economically productive corners is trouble. Military strikes to destroy North Korea's nukes remain a distinct possibility. Seoul, South Korea, however, is within conventional artillery range of North Korea, so in any conflict, damage to people and economies is a certainty. Hence, the "six nation" talks (Russia, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, China and the United States). This diplomatic forum engages the United States and North Korea's neighbors in an economic and political process intended to either coax or squeeze the nukes from North Korea's arsenal.

China is absolutely central to achieving this goal. Washington and Tokyo both believe China is the only nation that can truly pressure North Korea. China supplies North Korea with oil and food.

China, however, balked at openly nudging North Korea -- until late last week, when Beijing's diplomats produced a draft of "the Monday document" they said North Korea would sign if the United States acted quickly.

In many respects, the document merely sets conditions for further talks in November. Still, China has stepped forward and publicly used its political influence. China has no interest in "losing face" over an agreement it promoted. Thus, the small Chinese push may prove to be a plus for Washington and Tokyo.

China knows North Korea will eventually collapse, and it wants to have the determinative voice in the creation of a "United Korea." Combining South Korea's dynamic economy and abundant technical skill with North Korea's material resources puts a regional powerhouse on China's border.

Hence, China plays a careful, long-range game.

A North Korean collapse will be both boon and boondoggle for South Korea. South Korea has watched Germany's economic struggles -- West Germany absorbed East Germany, but the economic costs were (are) enormous.

North Korea is in much worse shape than East Germany. This is why some South Koreans would like a "leg up" on the future. North Korea has no infrastructure. In the short-term, shipping North Korea cheap electrical power in exchange for nuclear weapons reward's Kim Jong Il's extortion game. Yet South Korea knows it will confront the daunting task of "rewiring" North Korea when Kim and his colleagues enter history's dustbin.

Building electrical generation plants in South Korea near the North Korean border and running transmission lines throughout the North is a possible compromise. New railroads and highways might be part of the economic package, as long as construction firms from all six nations are involved.

But that's a political risk for Pyongyang. Russian, Chinese, Japanese, U.S. and South Korean engineers and construction personnel working on transportation projects in North Korea mean Kim must open his prison nation's cell door just a crack. For Eastern Europe's Cold War Stalinist regimes, cracking the cell door was the beginning of the end.

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