Posted on: Sunday, October 17, 2004
THE RISING EAST
Facing up to a nuclear N. Korea
By Richard Halloran
It has become increasingly apparent that North Korea has no intention of giving up its aspirations for nuclear arms no matter what concessions the United States, South Korea, and Japan offer, a conclusion with which many analysts in the U.S. intelligence community concur.
Once this realization has sunk in, leaders in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo will be required to forge new foreign policies and security postures to cope with a nuclear-armed North Korea. Even more, China will be forced to exert whatever influence it can over its roguish ally in Pyongyang.
For weeks, the North Koreans have grasped every opportunity to assert that they will not return to the six-party negotiations in Beijing led by China and including the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia.
Among its latest pronouncements, a spokesman for Pyongyang's Foreign Ministry asserted that the "hostile policy" of the United States was to blame for a stalemate in the negotiations.
He said North Korea "felt no need to explain what it (hostile policy) meant."
A diplomat in North Korea's mission at the United Nations contended that America was scheming to overthrow his government. "We cannot talk with the United States," Han Song-ryol said, "whether it is in the six-nation talks or a bilateral dialogue."
Nor does it matter who wins the American election in November - President Bush, the Republican who continues to advocate engaging North Korea through multinational talks, or Sen. John Kerry, the Democrat who argues that the United States should negotiate with North Korea in bilateral talks.
As Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency says, North Korea "does not care who becomes president in the U.S."
Living with a nuclear-armed North Korea will have immediate, mid-term, and long-range consequences.
In the immediate future, the United States will still be capable of massive retaliation should North Korea launch a nuclear or conventional attack against U.S. forces in Asia or its allies in South Korea or Japan. In that event, U.S. doctrine under Republican or Democratic administrations has long called explicitly for the destruction of the North Korean regime.
Politically, North Korea will have lost the bargaining leverage that its nuclear programs have provided as negotiations will have ended. Pyongyang will not get the diplomatic recognition from Washington that it urgently desires, and probably not from Tokyo.
Reconciliation with Seoul may be set back.
Economically, sanctions against Pyongyang will remain in place, and the aid and trade that it desperately needs for its starving people will not be forthcoming from the United States or Japan.
In the mid-term, the international nuclear nonproliferation endeavor intended to prevent the spread of nuclear arms will be dealt another blow. Israel, Pakistan and India already have damaged that effort; Iraq's nuclear plans, whatever they were, have been stopped, but Iran is believed to be moving ahead with its nuclear program.
South Korea, which sought nuclear arms in the 1970s but was dissuaded by the United States, may reconsider. As a senior Seoul official once said: "If they have them, we must have them."
Nuclear arms in North Korea will undoubtedly stimulate more discussion in Japan about obtaining nuclear arms, but that's as far as it is likely to go because the nuclear allergy that is the legacy of World War II is still strong there. Moreover, basing such weapons, most likely at sea, would be difficult and costly.
The key element in precluding Japan from going nuclear is the American security umbrella. The United States may need to reassure the Japanese that they will be secure without their own nuclear arms.
The long-term consequences of a nuclear-armed North Korea are the most frightening: Pyongyang could easily find a market for those weapons in terrorist networks worldwide.
Tracing and deterring sales shipments would be harder than discouraging a North Korean attack on South Korea. Targets in North Korea are known; discovering shipments of nuclear weapon components would be next to impossible.
Coping with that threat will be more a chore for China than the United States and its allies. No more than the United States, South Korea, and Japan do the Chinese want to see terrorists allied with pirates in the South China Sea endangering their oil lifeline from the Middle East or shipping lanes to export markets everywhere.
Honolulu-based Richard Halloran is a former Asia correspondent for the New York Times.