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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.