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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

India Intelligence Report

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   North Korea: Nuclear crisis - Way ahead

The failure to achieve a breakthrough on the North Korean nuclear issue in the latest fifth round of Six- Party talks (Beijing, December 18-22, 2006) should not have come as a total surprise to the international community, given the new complexities brought about to the situation by Pyongyang’s missile launches (July 2006) and the first nuclear weapon test (October 9,2006), firmly pointing towards the inevitability of prolonged further negotiations from now on to find a final solution to the thorny question. - by Mr. D. S. Rajan.

Mr. D.S. Rajan is formerly Director in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. He can be reached at rajan@whatisindia.com 

The failure to achieve a breakthrough on the North Korean nuclear issue in the latest fifth round of Six- Party talks (Beijing, December 18-22, 2006) should not have come as a total surprise to the international community, given the new complexities brought about to the situation by Pyongyang’s missile launches (July 2006) and the first nuclear weapon test (October 9,2006), firmly pointing towards the inevitability of prolonged further negotiations from now on to find a final solution to the thorny question.

At the same time, it can not be denied that the present session, the first in last 13 months, provided some room for optimism with the six powers reaching an agreement to implement the Joint Statement of September 19,2005 ‘as soon as possible in a phased manner and reconvene the rounds at the earliest opportunity’. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), in particular, had agreed through that Statement to denuclearise in exchange for security guarantees and aid (presumably including the delivery of two Light Water Nuclear reactors promised under the now defunct 1994 agreed frame work). A fresh round thus looks possible in not too distant future, but only if new complications do not arise. For e.g., any moves in future by the DPRK to conduct further nuclear tests, will have potentials to sabotage the chances of future negotiations. Pertinent in this connection are Chinese assessments not ruling out more tests by Pyongyang (Beijing Review, December 10, 2006). Notable in the same light are reports in the world media (January 5, 2007) on signs over preparations for a second explosion, not withstanding the official denials on this count from Washington and Seoul.

What is the DPRK strategy on the nuclear issue? Possession of nuclear weapons as guarantee for the country’s preservation has remained a national goal for North Korea since early 60s, a period when efforts began to acquire relevant technology from the former Soviet Union. The goal remains the same till today with the DPRK leader Kim Jung-Il showing determination to thwart any US attempt for a regime change in his country, as happened in the case of Iraq. For realising the goal, Pyongyang is following a two-pronged approach – deliberately creating obstacles to negotiations through laying pre-conditions and developing nuclear weapons in the meanwhile. This line has the strong backing of the North Korean military, which enjoys enormous powers under the country’s “Songgun” (military first) policy and provides crucial support to the leadership of Kim Jung-Il. The approach has now assumed a new character after the nuclear test on October 9, 2006, enabling Pyongyang to enter into the latest negotiation from a position of strength.

Not surprisingly therefore, a nuclear armed and more confident DPRK is projecting its preconditions in a wider context now, which could make future negotiations tougher. Pyongyang’s call in the latest talks that the US should cease its ‘hostility’ towards the DPRK along with its characterisation that the financial embargo of Washington (imposed in response to North Korea’s alleged money laundering and counterfeit operations through the Bank of Delta Asia at Macao), has only been a symbol of such hostility, is a case in point. Other hostile symbols in the view of North Korea may include the US troops in South Korea and in particular, the American air exercise there involving B-52 bombers (January 5,2007), described by the DPRK as a practice air attack on the North.

Thus, the US overall hostility, rather than the specific embargo, appears to have become now the main target of North Korea. A Chinese analysis aptly sums up the fresh nuances in the DPRK’s current strategic outlook by observing that Pyongyang aims to use the gained nuclear capabilities as a bargaining chip in future talks and for acquiring a great power status leading to transformation of its strategic relations with the neighbouring countries (Beijing Review, December 10, 2006).

Another point of significance relates to the lack of a consensus on how to deal with the North Korean nuclear ambition, among the other five powers – the US, Japan, South Korea, Russia and China. The US and Japan fall under a category separate from others with their ‘no compromise’ strategies vis-à-vis the DPRK’s nuclear programme, under the realisation that a line to the contrary could send wrong signals to other “rogue states” and terrorist organisations. The position of South Korea, a US ally, has been distinct. Even though Seoul feels threatened by North Korea’s nuclear programme, military and conventional weaponry (Annual Defence White paper, 2006), it advocates strongly adoption of a ‘sunshine’ policy and taking peace as an option while dealing with Pyongyang. The emphasis being given by the South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on the need for South-North ‘harmony’, with his country playing a role of ‘balancer’ in Northeast Asia, hints at Seoul’s intentions to somewhat distance itself from the US-Japan approach on North Korea.

Russia and China can be put in the same bracket on the North Korean nuclear issue. Moscow’s policy of achieving peaceful denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula through the ‘only’ channel of six party talks is being reiterated at various levels including the Russian Foreign Minister. China’s attitude is also more or less the same. China remains North Korea’s important ally, bound by a mutual security pact, biggest trade partner and source of food, arms and fuel. According to authoritative Chinese scholars, despite this dependence, Pyongyang gives priority to its own interests rather than to its relations with Beijing and it is impossible for China to apply excessive pressure on the DPRK on the nuclear issue.

Admitting that issues like lack of mutual trust over Beijing-Seoul ties, flow of refugees into China and potentials for an arms race in the region resulting from a nuclear North Korea, bedevil China-DPRK relations, the scholars have opined that still for Beijing, the preservation of the DPRK is strategically important. The pressure, which China faces from the US on the Taiwan reunification issue, will be reduced as North Korea acts as a buffer zone. China supports only ‘limited’ sanctions against the DPRK, but not ‘harsh’ sanctions leading to a regime change (Professor Shen Dingli, Executive Deputy Director, Institute for International Relations, Fu Dan University, China).

Also in the view of China, Washington’s policy towards nuclear non-proliferation in general and the North Korean nuclear issue in particular, is motivated. Beijing accuses the US of having induced North Korea to conduct nuclear tests so as to bring the latter under the UN sanctions and weaken China’s influence over the DPRK and makes further allegations that the US in fact does not consider non-proliferation as its strategic goal and instead follows a ‘ long term utilitarian’ approach towards the subject. A case in point is the US civil nuclear support to India in violation of the NPT, the real aim of which is to ‘contain’ other nations; in contrast, Beijing ‘staunchly opposes all forms of proliferation’ (People’s Daily, October 30, 2006).

In an atmosphere of lack of consensus on the North Koran nuclear issue among China, Russia and South Korea on one hand and the US and Japan on the other, the adopted Resolution No. 1718 in the UN Security Council, though cited Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, finally turned out be a compromise document, excluding military sanctions against Pyongyang. Russia and China pressed for necessary revisions to the original draft.

Any guess on future developments on the North Korean nuclear issue would be hazardous at this juncture. Further attempts to resolve the tangle has to be based on the current reality – North Korea has now become a de facto nuclear weapon power; as a result, proliferation concerns have increased and a basis for balance of power change in Northeast Asia has been established. Another premise could be that there can be no use of military option, as it can have serious consequences for regional peace and stability. The US, already entangled with Iraq crisis and the Iran nuclear issue, is not in a position to intervene militarily in North Korea. Also, China’s ability to rein in North Korea on the nuclear issue has come under a cloud in the current circumstances. Continuing the six party talks seems to be the only way out, irrespective of the reported North Korean aim to skip that mechanism and instead, talk direct to the US. The ice can be broken if the US, Japan and South Korea put their heads together in finalising an alternate formula relating to financial sanctions, acceptable to Pyongyang.


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