Fallout from Pentagon's gaffe spreads
TOKYO - As the latest round of six-party talks on North Korea's scrapping of its nuclear arms program ended on Thursday without any discernable progress, growing controversy over a United States defense report "mistakenly" listing the Hermit Kingdom as one of Asia's five nuclear powers has experts from the region fretting that the error was a Freudian slip.
Adding fuel to the fire is US Defense Secretary Robert Gates' remark in the January/February 2009 edition of Foreign Affairs magazine that "North Korea has built several nuclear bombs".
Caught between a diplomatic rock and a military hard place, has some new thinking on North Korea's atomic ambitions emerged in Washington? Or are the report's findings a reality, which has resulted from the dangerous precedent the US set when tacitly accepting proliferation to states like India and Pakistan, which are not signatories to the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT)?
The controversy over the Pentagon report and Gates' remarks has risen at a time when there are no clear US answers - or actions - to respond to these questions, and this bothers a lot of people in East Asia.
Many analysts in Tokyo balk at the notion of the US formally admitting that the North is a nuclear power. This is a reality which would lead to future six-party talks being reclassified as "disarmament" negotiations, a significant strengthening of the North's hand and a deepening of security fears for the North's regional rivals.
"The Pentagon may need to consider the acceptance of a nuclearized North Korea for its military perceptions," Lee Young-hwa, an expert on Korea and an economics professor at Kansai University in Osaka, told Asia Times Online. "But this raises regional fears of the North's nuclear armament, especially in Tokyo and Seoul."
The Pentagon last week issued a 56-page report entitled the "Joint Operating Environment (JOE) 2008: Challenges and Implications for the Future Joint Force". It was the sentence, "The rim of the great Asian continent is already home to five nuclear powers: China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Russia," that has so delighted North Korea.
The US has estimated that the North has about 50 kilograms of plutonium, enough to produce five to 10 nuclear weapons, depending on the size of the bombs produced. Pyongyang unilaterally declared itself a de facto nuclear power in February 2005, but despite a test in October 2006 the US has never officially said it is a nuclear power.
"Looking back, it was a monumental policy error by the [George W] Bush administration to allow Pyongyang to carry out that nuclear test, and later on all efforts came too late," Kansai University's Lee said. "The Bill Clinton administration successfully prevented it by threatening to pose military action. But since the US war with Iraq, Pyongyang has become fully aware of its weaknesses. North Korea is not concerned with the threat of US military action."
North Korea hailed its October 2006 nuclear test an historic event. But debate continues among military experts over whether the detonation was actually a dud.
Kwon Ho-yon, a professor of political science at Hosei University in Tokyo, told Asia Times Online that the North's first nuclear test was a failure, and that it cannot conduct a second for fear of again exposing its program's deficiencies.
"Even if you have all the ingredients of a dish, without a trusted chef, they are meaningless," Kwon said. "I do not buy the view North Korea is already a nuclear state. If Pyongyang had wanted to erase such suspicions, it could have already held a second nuclear test."
Japanese military analyst Toshiyuki Shikata echoed Kwon's views. "I would say more than half of the military experts [in Japan and elsewhere] believe the North's nuclear test was a failure," he said. "North Korea failed to detonate the nuclear device fully in October 2006 with small fission power. Moreover, without the ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, we cannot say North Korea is a nuclear-armed state."
State Department versus Pentagon
Washington swiftly straightened things out by denying the veracity of the Pentagon report, with the State Department clarifying that it did not reflect the US government's official stance.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Wednesday, "That is not our national policy, and that document does not - the document they referenced - does not represent the official views of the United States."
Pentagon spokesman Stewart Upton also rebutted the report, but he was still somehow supportive of it and stopped short of pledging to correct it. Upton said in a statement on Tuesday that the report "is not meant to be a statement of policy and specifically states on the second page that the report is speculative in nature and is only intended to serve as a starting point for discussions about the future security environment".
As expected, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency has taken full advantage of the controversy. "It is the first time that a US government report has acknowledged and announced that North Korea is a nuclear weapons state," said the KCNA.
Gates' remarks came in an article titled "A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age". In it, the secretary said, "There is the potentially toxic mix of rogue nations, terrorist groups, and nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. North Korea has built several bombs, and Iran seeks to join the nuclear club."
A senior Japanese official was left panicked by the Pentagon report.
"As the only nation in the world to be bombed with atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki [in 1945], Japan can never accept such a policy stance," a high-ranking Japanese diplomat told Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity. "In addition, Japan upholds the NPT. Also, admitting North Korea as a nuclear state is not a good negotiation tactic. It only benefits Pyongyang. "
Along with India, Pakistan and Israel, North Korea has long questioned the contradiction and the legitimacy of the NPT, which allows its five nuclear power signatories - the US, China, Russia, Britain and France - to arm themselves with nuclear weapons, while denying other states the capability. Pyongyang withdrew from the NPT in January 2003.
President-elect Barack Obama has said his administration will do everything to eradicate the nuclear threat around the globe, stressing that the US should do its part and greatly reduce its stockpiles. But with the NPT's credibility eroded further by this damaging error, and Pyongyang seeming ever-more bullish, Obama will face an uphill task to succeed where Bush failed.
Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist. He can be contacted at [email protected]