Confronting the Korean bomb

As Condoleezza Rice has observed, North Korea is the road-kill of history. Right now, it is probably the biggest threat to global security, and this situation doesn't look likely to change. The regime in North Korea, headed by Kim Jong-Il (who was heir to the first dynasty in the history of Communism), is frequently described as "irrational" by the United States and its relationships with other powers in the region are frayed. No-one wants North Korea on their doorstep, least of all China.

North Korea's nuclear program perhaps was started as a defensive measure from when the United States had tactical nuclear weapons based in the South, although these were withdrawn in 1991. Most likely, the regime, long eclipsed by the South and faced with the threat of the South reaching conventional military parity with it, wanted nukes as a trump card to manipulate its enemies and its allies (China didn't want a nuclear Korea, either.) The prospect of them acquiring a nuclear weapon is now the only weapon they have against a hostile world.


Some people are accusing the United States of ignoring the North Korean problem because of the current war over Iraq. This is not really the case - clearly the United States administration is capable of, as Hans Blix put it, chewing gum and walking at the same time. What they actually mean is that they are not seeing a military buildup in the area and they are not hearing as much sabre-rattling. This is because the Korean problem is very different to the Iraqi problem, and hence needs to be dealt with very differently. The first thing to do is define the problem.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, North Korea was finding itself increasingly isolated as subsidized trade from the Soviet Union and China was cut off. It seemed that North Korea would have to improve relations with the Free World, and some people permitted themselves to think the Korean diplomatic winter might be over.

In 1991, North and South Korea signed the "Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression, Exchanges and Cooperation and the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" and North Korea submitted itself to inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. While they commited to this in word, it was never translated into actions. North Korea repeatedly blocked visits to its facilities during 1992-3 and when the IAEA referred the issue to the United Nations Security Council and the Council passed Resolution 825 which -

"1. Calls upon the DPRK to reconsider the announcement contained in the letter of 12 March 1993 and thus to reaffirm its commitment to the Treaty;

2. Further calls upon the DPRK to honour its non-proliferation obligations under the Treaty and comply with its safeguards agreement with the IAEA Board of Governors' resolution of 25 February 1993;"

North Korea rejected the request a day later and again refused IAEA inspectors access to their sites. Tensions mounted as the North cut off negotiations with the South, and to get them restarted South Korea and United States Forces Korea had to agree to stop carrying out 'Team Spirit' exercises. PATRIOT anti-ballistic missile batteries were deployed to the South and the North threatened war should sanctions be imposed on them by the international community. The Defence Secretary of the United States noted that he thought this was rhetoric, but that it would be foolish to act on this premise. It was hard to say what an already starving country which was dependent on international aid might do were it to be removed.

Even back then, South Korea eclipsed its Northern rival in almost every arena. Analysts estimated that South Korea could easily over-run the North with only a small increase in defence spending, although the proximity of Seoul to the DMZ (it is within long-range artillery range) meant that the city might well be destroyed. Even so, United States Forces Korea upped its readiness and began an exercise to designed to prepare them to respond to a sudden invasion from the North. As they are being now, various limited strikes were discussed - it was hoped the operational effectiveness of North Korea's nuclear program could be severely reduced, if not destroyed.

There was no invasion of the North. China said it would send 50,000 - 75,000 troops to assist North Korea were it invaded by the South and the United States, but that would provide only nominal assistance in the case of North invading South. There was a period of high tension and finally an Agreed Framework was signed at Geneva in 1994. It was agreed that North Korea would freeze its graphite-moderated reactors (which would be replaced by light-water reactor power plants supplied by an international consortium led by the U.S.), the U.S. would ship 500,000 tons of heavy oil to North Korea anually. Most importantly, the U.S. promised not to use nuclear weapons against North Korea, and the North Korea agreed to work towards a non-nuclear Korea and "strengthen the international nuclear non-proliferation regime." The United States and North Korea were to move towards normalized relations.

The construction of the LWRs was delayed as concessions to the IAEA were demanded in exchange. North Korea denied the IAEA some historical data but co-operation was forthcoming on the canning of spent fuel rods and their disposal. But on August 31, 1998, North Korea tested a Taepodong-1 ballistic missile, which the United States saw as a destabilizing act. Former Secretary of Defence William J. Perry was charged with conducting an enquiry into U.S. policy towards North Korea and producing a comprehensive report along with recommendations. It suggested that the U.S. would make concessions to North Korea to remove pressures that the DPRK regarded as threatening if they removed the threat of their long-rang missiles, and that the U.S. would move to normalize relations if North Korea chose to take this "positive route." But -

..."If, however, North Korea refused to go down this 'positive path,' "the United States and its allies would have to take other steps to assure their security and contain the threat."

The current problem, and options in dealing with it

"During the second half of 2001, Pyongyang continued its attempts to procure technology worldwide that could have applications in its nuclear program. We assess that North Korea has produced enough plutonium for at least one, and possibly two, nuclear weapons. Spent fuel rods canned in accordance with the 1994 Agreed Framework contain enough plutonium for several more weapons."

So reads an unclassified CIA report to Congress given on the 2nd of February, 2002. North Korea is clearly not co-operating with any of the nuclear non-proliferation agreements it has signed in the past. The United States currently considers the biggest threat to be global security to be the nexus between totalitarian regimes and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. North Korea's recent saber-rattling must coincide with a realization in Pyongyang of the true power of the trump card it holds, but they must be wary of overstepping the mark. They have recently re-activated the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon (which has been the center of their nuclear program since at least the early 1990s) and expelled IAEA inspectors.

Many people have been calling for a withdrawal of the 37,000 men and women of United States Forces Korea for a long time. It does seem profoundly unfair for these people to act as a "nuclear trip-wire." By withdrawing from South Korea and encouraging nations in the region to cope with the problem, the United States could save itself a lot of hassle in the long run. It could even encourage Japan and South Korea to go nuclear themselves, which might well force North Korea to rethink their position. A nuclear balance of power could emerge in East Asia, removing an anachronistic U.S. military presence and encouraging the region to make its own decisions. However, this would not solve the problem of the DPRK refusing to stick to its international agreements, and the threat to the United States of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction might still exist.

Could North Korea be brought back into the fold by negotiation, and made to comply with the 1994 Agreed Framework? It seems unlikely, and the U.S. has refused to hold talks with the nation until it stops its "cheating" on the current agreement. The regime would probably be all too happy to "pocket" concessions granted to it in another round of talks and then give the U.S. the one-fingered salute again in a year or so and demand further concessions. This is still the policy that is called for by Clinton-era officials in the White House, and most liberals.

It is the Bush camp that is currently calling for there to be no talks. Given the disturbing prospect that North Korea is determined to become a nuclear state and is just trying to hoodwink the World, they seem to be on the right course. However, their call for economic and political sanctions against the regime might not produce a favourable outcome either. The regime is already isolated and very poor, so it is unlikely that they could be persuaded to give up their only hope of power as they became more and more put upon.

Some extreme hawks are calling for a pre-emptive military strike, just as they did in 1994. This could be very dangerous. For a start, it could trigger a general war on the Korean peninsula, but some administration officials are suggesting this may be worth the risk. Writing in the New Republic, Michael Levi says that the real problem with a pre-emptive strike is not what it'll hit, but what it might miss. While it is argued that a precision strike against the North's known facilities could be carried out without causing significant radiation spread, the clandestine uranium-enrichment facilities, whose location is unknown, could not be targetted. Unlike in 1994, it seems that North Korea's nuclear production facilities could not be totally destroyed by anything short of full-scale invasion and occupation.

If the U.S. takes a similar approach to the Korean problem as it did Iraq, it would have to be aware of many things. One is China. In 1961, China and the DPRK signed a "Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance" which guarantees that they will come to the aid of one another if one faces outside aggression. China, in this stage of its liberalization and development, obviously does not want a war with the United States. Nor does it want to assist North Korea in waging one. Relations between North Korea and China have been strained recently as North Korea calls for the forceful return of thousands of North Koreans that have fled to China, and over the placement of North Korea's first Special Economic Zone (SEZ.) But the fact is, the agreement remains. Unless China nullifies it soon, it might have to take a quick decision on what to do if hostilities begin.

In a general war, South Korea and the United States Forces Korea could overcome the North. But they would do so at a great cost to human life and in a manner that would destabilize the region. Even if North Korea wasn't able to strike with nuclear weapons, the South and Japan could face horrific bombardment. South Koreans don't want another war, and they want to reunify the peninsula rather than supporting the U.S. military presence. Seoul was recently forced to withdraw from a decision to send 700 non-combatants to Iraq in support of the U.S. invasion: so it seems the South doesn't support U.S. action either.

What's to do? The U.S. might remove one problem for itself by withdrawing from the peninsula (because the DPRK would feel less threatened), and this might help it hand over East Asian affairs to Russia, China, Japan and South Korea. But this doesn't solve the problem of North Korea engaging in international weapons proliferation (we know that North Korea exports conventional missiles and technology) and breaking its international agreements. The DPRK might seek to squeeze further concessions from the U.S. even after the withdrawl of USFK by making further threats. The U.S. can't be seen to be provoked by the North, either - part of its national security strategy at the moments involves making no concessions to totalitarian regimes. Given what appeasement and apathy have produced before, this seems like no bad thing.


United States Department of State,

The Cato Institute,

Asia Times,

Federation of Atomic Scientists,