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North Korea’s bomb: Catch-22?

By Aidan Foster-Carter, Asia Times, 30 October 2002

Don’t know about you, but I’m bombed out. Sorry, that’s a tactless metaphor these days. But I’m overloaded on this new North Korean nuclear issue. Just keeping up with the stream of information and comment—in a ratio of about 1:10, mind—takes forever. Next comes what the Anglican prayer book calls read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. And then, you try to make sense of it all. Here’s my best shot so far.

Facts first, such as they are. At the time, US assistant secretary of state James Kelly’s October 3-5 trip to Pyongyang seemed merely exploratory. Talking to the Associated Press’s Chris Torchia, I likened it to what dogs do when they first meet each other. They’re just going to smell each other out. Another dodgy image. Saying this stuff is one thing, but then to read it in cold print ... Yet I’d stand by it. Two basically hostile hounds, each warily circling the other and sniffing for motives or any other clues.

But we now know it was a lot more specific than that. Washington isn’t telling exactly what smoking gun Kelly produced, but it was enough to provoke a surprise reaction. Expecting the usual denials, the US team was amazed when, after all-night talks, North Korea apparently admitted that it does indeed have a new covert nuclear program: based on enriched uranium, unlike the plutonium-based method that was closed down (supposedly) under the October 1994 US-DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Agreed Framework (AF).

That’s how the United States told it—eventually, having sat on this bombshell until congressional authorization for war with Iraq was safely in the bag. Have the North Koreans admitted to this admission? Not in so many words; well, they wouldn’t, would they? But as good as. After a week of silence, last Friday a statement by the Foreign Ministry insisted that the DPRK was entitled to possess not only nuclear weapon but any type of weapon more powerful than that. The latter might mean chemical and/or biological weapons (CBW), which again North Korea is widely thought to possess but has never admitted until now.

So what are they up to, and what have they got? A nukes-for-missiles swap with Pakistan now seems confirmed, despite Islamabad’s denials. This had long been rumored; indeed, I wrote about it last year (Nukes and missiles: The Pakistan connection, June 5, 2001; see also Pakistan and the North Korea connection, October 22, 2002.) Yet there is doubt whether this new effort, starting in the late 1990s, could yet have built a weapon. So when US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he reckons Kim Jong-il has a bomb or two already, this is actually nothing new. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has said as much for years. Any such existing weapons will come from plutonium siphoned off from the old Yongbyon site, before it was mothballed in 1994 under the AF.

In that sense, the news is not so much of a fresh threat, but that North Korea has fessed up. This can cut two ways. Some see Kim Jong-il’s new confessional mode—first kidnaps, now nukes: what next?—as a bombshell that’s actually an olive branch (Leon Sigal’s phrase). A Far Side cartoon comes to mind. Two old ladies cower as a monstrous giant insect beats at their window. The caption, as I recall it: Yes Mildred, I can see it’s a monstrous giant insect, but it may be a monstrous giant insect that needs help.

Contrast Kim Myong-chol, a pro-North Korean in Japan, who demands a shotgun wedding between George W Bush and Kim Jong-il (is that legal in Texas?); albeit at the point of a Taepodong ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] fitted with a hydrogen warhead, he breezily adds. These and other essays can be found on the Nautilus site (www.nautilus.org): indispensable as ever for following North Korea, matters nuclear, and much more.

My own sympathies are with Nautilus’s founding director Peter Hayes, who reflects the dismay felt by all of us who had backed engagement. He reckons neither North Korea nor the United States has a game plan, but that Kim Jong-il will have to choose between his nukes and his economy. To me, it’s a Catch 22. War is unthinkable, and fortunately the US has ruled this out (it’s kinda busy already on that front). Yet how can you renegotiate a deal you thought you already had with a partner who cynically cheated all along?

Any strategy for North Korea has to be framed in terms of desired outcomes. War is a worst-case: the Korean People’s Army (KPA) would flatten Seoul and might bomb Tokyo before it lost, so no South Korean government will risk this. Kim Jong-il knows that, and yet again hopes to leverage threats for aid (it’s called blackmail). But as a US spokesman said, we bought that horse before. It won’t wash twice—above all not with Japan, which on Monday started talks on ties with the DPRK in Kuala Lumpur. As the sole victim so far of atomic bombs, for Tokyo nukes are non-negotiable: they mean no ties, no aid, nothing. Period.

And the rest of us? Much as everyone had hoped to lure North Korea into a soft landing, at what point do you decide that this regime is beyond repair or salvation? Sanctions are one possibility, or simple withdrawal. As the poet said: Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive / Officiously to keep alive.

Then again, what is the North Koreans’ game? Maybe Hayes is right, and they don’t have one—or rather, are arguing furiously over which path to take. That’s the impression I get from the Pyongyang press of late. But what do you know, I’m right out of space—and I was just getting started. More on this next time.