Staying in the Nuclear Ball Game

Posted in Koreas | 20-Jun-06 | Author: Ehsan Ahrari

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il

North Korea is about to launch its long-range ballistic missile. As expected, the United States has warned that such an action would be “a very serious matter and indeed a provocative act.” That is precisely what Pyongyang wanted. It wanted to make sure that Washington is watching and listening. As five plus one nations have offered a comprehensive deal to Iran for freezing its uranium enrichment program, North Korea does not want to be left behind. It very much wants to remain in the nuclear ball game. That is what Kim Jong Il seems to be up to.

As the world’s attention remained focused on U.S.-Iran nuclear conflict in the past several weeks, North Korea felt ignored. The kind of attention it was getting several months ago seems to have been stolen by Iran. In fact, Iran had even stolen the negotiating framework under which North Korea was bargaining. The six-nation negotiating forum—which included the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia—was a source of envy for Iran. Through that forum, North Korea could also negotiate with the United States, even though not on a one-to-one basis. However, the opportunity for such a dialogue with Washington was still there. That forum was also a place where Japan and South Korea were willing to go much farther than the United States in terms of offering economic assistance to North Korea.

Where the negotiations were stalled were on such issue as exactly what North Korea should give up and when. Another complication was Pyongyang refusal to return to negotiations because it was angry at a Treasury Department crackdown on its counterfeiting of U.S. dollars.

Yet another serious impediment was there was no satisfactory progress, from the North Korean perspectives, on security guarantees. What it boiled down to was the absence of trust and credibility on both sides. Kim Jong Il did not trust the Bush administration. His regime was publicly maligned once too often. Kim really thinks that Bush is just as much serious about bringing an end to his regime as he was about that regarding Saddam Hussein’s. Kim is not being paranoid on that issue, to be sure. Bush was on the record in terms of expressing his personal loathing of Kim Jong Il. He uttered his strong views about the North Korean strongman during an interview with Bob Woodward, an American journalist.

Those matters aside, what mattered even more than personal hatred is the fact the North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons. It came a long way, risked a lot, and misspent enormous amount of its precious national resources to develop those weapons. It was not about to give them up, freeze them, or do away with them just because a group of countries, along with the United States, were going to guarantee the survival of its regime. Only Iran had to rely on such guarantees, according to Kim Jong Il’s perspectives, simply because Iran has not yet reached the state of development in its indigenous know-how to have a readymade nuclear weapon or two in its inventory.

That is also where the rub is from the U.S. perspectives. It has seen Brazil and Argentina give up their nuclear weapons and sign a bilateral accord to establish the Argentine-Brazilian Accounting and Control Commission (ABACC). South Africa also took that route but only for racist reasons. The apartheid white regime did not want the then incoming government of Nelson Mandela to become in charge of nuclear know-how when the white apartheid was going out of power.

So the North Korea seems to have decided to end its self-imposed moratorium about such testing and is expected to test its Taepodong-2 missile long-range ballistic missile, or so says the U.S. intelligence on the basis of which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has issued the aforementioned warning.

The six-nation unity on this issue is most noticeable for its absence. South Korea is skeptical of the U.S. intelligence findings. In the post-Iraq invasion era, credibility is the most sorely lacking commodity for the U.S. intelligence agencies. Leaders in Beijing and Seoul think that Pyongyang might not conduct a military test. Instead, say the South Koreans, the North Koreans might only try to launch a satellite.

The East Asian members of the six-nation dialogue want the United States to do its utmost to lure North Korea back to the negotiations, even if that means calling off the financial crackdown conducted by the Treasury Department. During the visit of the Chinese President Hu Jintao, President Bush, while reaffirming his resolve to continue the six-nation dialogue, refused to end the Treasure Department crackdown.

Japan is staying close to the U.S. hardline on the issue of North Korean missile test. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a close American ally, stated that his country “would have to respond harshly” If Pyongyang proceeds with the missile test.

The best possible outcome regarding this conflict is that North Korea would not launch its missile test. If it does, there are likely to be a lot of heated rhetorical exchanges, but nothing beyond that. North Korea knows that, despite its awesome military power, the United States cannot afford another military conflict right now. At the same time, Kim Jong Il’s best option is not to push George Bush into even considering military action. There is likely to be behind-the-scenes pressure on North Korea from China to that end.

North Korea’s best bet is to continue looking for the best possible politico-economic and security deal from the U.S., South Korea and Japan. And if it can do that without testing its long-range missile at this time, in all likelihood it would not regret opting for that course of action. That might be the best course for Pyongyang for staying in the nuclear ball game.

Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms Defense Consultancy based in Alexandria, VA, US. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. He is also the USA Editor of World Security Network Online (WSN), and a regular contributor to the Global Beat Syndicate. He can be reached at: [email protected] or [email protected].