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  • Harsh Kapoor
    The Hindu (India) 5 December 2002 Op-Ed. NORTH KOREA¹S GAMBLE By Achin Vanaik Latest new bulletins about North Korea¹s self-acknowledged uranium enrichment
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 5 5:37 AM
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      The Hindu (India)
      5 December 2002

      By Achin Vanaik

      Latest new bulletins about North Korea¹s self-acknowledged uranium
      enrichment programme to make nuclear weapons, and of the role of
      Pakistan in helping Pyongyang, have pushed both Washington and New
      Delhi to highlight North Korean perfidy and Pakistani duplicity
      respectively. But these are actually only minor themes in a more
      complicated overall picture, which has not really been exposed in
      most of the world¹s media. This was brought home sharply in the
      context of my recent visit to Japan and a sustained discussion with
      some Japanese experts on Korea, who outside of the Korean peninsula
      are really the most acute and independent of Korea-watchers. The
      fuller story begins with the historic decisions of Kim Dae Jung in
      South Korea and of the Japan government to explore the possibility of
      a rapprochement with North Korea. For Washington this came as an
      unwelcome shock. The US government now looks forward to a
      conservative replacement of Kim in forthcoming South Korean elections
      and a deceleration, if not end, to Seoul¹s ŒSunshine¹ policy. For
      Japan, the move towards North Korea was one of those truly rare
      occasions when Tokyo was prepared to defy Washington in a matter of
      foreign policy, especially when North Korea had been openly
      designated as part of the "axis of evil".

      Washington¹s chance came just before Premier Koizumi¹s visit in late
      September to Pyongyang. In order to prevent serious progress at the
      forthcoming summit meeting the Japanese leader was told of the North
      Korean efforts to build a uranium enrichment facility through missile
      trades with Pakistan and this matter was duly brought up by the
      Japanese premier at the summit. The text of those talks has not so
      far been made public but it appears that there was at least a tacit
      admission of the effort. Of course, the dramatic public revelations
      that followed about violation of the 1994 agreement with the US, the
      apology for the killing of five South Korean sailors in a naval
      battle and the admission of kidnapping Japanese citizens had a clear
      purpose. They were not the declaration of a new posture of barefaced
      belligerence but an attempt to clear the decks, as it were, for
      moving North Korea in a new direction.

      Behind this lies not just a new strategic-political reorientation but
      also an economic one. The admission is a North Korean attempt to
      establish some bargaining counters vis-à-vis the US: to end its
      nuclear weapons programme and even its missile development programme
      (it had already indicated its willingness to do this to Tokyo) for an
      end to US hostility towards it and the initiation of a new era of
      political normality. Pyongyang also wants a deepening of the new thaw
      with Japan. Supporters of this line in North Korea decided quite
      sensibly that no matter how much it sought to militarily strengthen
      itself, it would never be a match for either Japan or the US nor even
      provide itself a minimal form of deterrent against them. Abandoning
      the military-nuclear programme of ambitious power projection
      therefore made sense especially since it could still retain, without
      nuclear weapons or long-range missiles, a significant military
      capacity against South Korea, which was all it really needed by way
      of military leverage.

      Economically speaking, generally unnoticed abroad, Kim Jong Il has
      embarked on a genuine reform programme breaking with its past command
      structure. These measures are still in the early stages but the
      changes are real and the direction set is a decisively new one, which
      North Korea¹s leaders know they cannot continue without significant
      external help, both technical and financial, especially from Japan.
      But this in turn requires a sea change in North Korean relations with
      the all-powerful US. Prices and wages have been raised for the first
      time in more than 20 years, bringing them closer to international
      levels especially for food items. Food rationing (except for rice)
      has been abolished while farmers are getting higher product prices.
      Private plots have been allowed for some years but collectives can
      now grow cash crops once they have fulfilled their grain quota.
      Profit incentives have been introduced in factory management.
      Production beyond stipulated quotas means profits that can be
      retained and distributed among workers as bonuses. Special economic
      zones for attracting foreign investment are on the anvil.

      Incidentally, despite all the brouhaha in India, neither the Japanese
      nor the Americans are worried about the uranium enrichment programme,
      which is very far from being completed. It is the plutonium bombs
      that might already exist (perhaps produced before 1994) that is the
      main concern. It is not certain that these exist but Tokyo has some
      reason to believe that there could be two to five such bombs. The
      real question is whether the North Korean gamble will succeed.
      Current signs are not good. Washington believes that its aggressive
      Œaxis of evil¹ diplomacy has pushed a more desperate North Korea to
      come clean.

      At the recent APEC conference when the leaders of the US, Japan and
      South Korea met, the joint statement that emerged shows Seoul and
      Tokyo moving some way towards Washington¹s harder posture. Neither
      Seoul nor Tokyo has yet abandoned its independent line of seeking a
      degree of rapprochement with North Korea and simply accepting the old
      position of subservience to Washington. But by declaring that there
      would be no conclusion to its discussions with Pyongyang unless the
      nuclear issue was fully sorted out, i.e. the programme dismantled,
      they have signalled their new and closer realignment with Washington.
      The nuclear issue is one that North Korea¹s leaders believe is up for
      discussion only between themselves and the US and should not come
      into their bilateral discussions with South Korea and Japan. As it
      is, the public anger against North Korea in Japan caused by the news
      of the kidnappings has reduced Tokyo¹s room for manoeuvre.

      If the US has so far gone along with the publicly proclaimed
      declarations of Seoul and Tokyo that there should be a peaceful
      resolution of the new tensions between North Korea and the others, it
      is because the US wants to handle one crisis at a time: first sort
      out the Iraq affair to its satisfaction and then turn its attention
      to North Korea. Indeed, if events unfold in the desired manner in
      West Asia then there is no reason whatsoever to think that the US
      will not resort to belligerence rather than appeasement as the way to
      handle North Korea. This can certainly mean pre-emptive air strikes
      to take out designated targets (including perceived nuclear
      facilities) and military reinforcement of US presence in South Korea.
      If the US gets bogged down in the wake of an attack on Iraq, North
      Korea¹s leaders may have the requisite space to push for a negotiated
      Œsolution¹ along Œcooperative¹ lines between itself and the US.

      But this is clearly a gamble. Pyongyang¹s decision to make those
      startling public disclosures was more an effort to end the logjam
      created by the Bush administration¹s hardening of diplomatic posture
      towards North Korea. Moreover, regardless of what happens in West
      Asia, it is still unlikely that the US will take the Œsoft¹ approach.
      In a wider strategic sense, the US does not want early Korean
      reunification or the easing of North Korean related tensions in
      Northeast Asia for this would weaken the rationale for its own
      strategic-military presence in the region and its Œcontainment¹
      efforts vis-à-vis China for which it needs to strengthen the
      dependence of Japan and South Korea (and Taiwan) on it, not ease
      these dependencies through the progressive diminution of the North
      Korean Œthreat¹.

      China, for its part, is certainly disturbed by any idea of a future
      US military attack on nearby North Korea, as well as the precedent
      this could set for the future. But it has also seized the opportunity
      to signal its happy alignment with the US in its effort to end the
      nuclear programme of North Korea, hoping thereby to defuse and weaken
      anti-Chinese sentiments and attitudes that are of course prevalent in
      various important policy-shaping circles in and around Washington.
      Finally, there will be outside pressures from Seoul and Tokyo on
      North Korea, as well as internal pressures, to unilaterally make more
      concessions before the year end so as to make it extremely difficult
      for the US to do anything but move towards Œcooperation¹ and
      Œnegotiations¹ with it. Whether this will happen or not remains to be
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