HONOLULU — North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship is escalating. Pyongyang is now claiming that only a nonaggression treaty between North Korea and Washington can prevent “a catastrophic crisis of a war” on the Korean Peninsula.
Of course, Washington has said repeatedly that it has no intention of invading North Korea. Does this mean that Pyongyang will launch a war that is certain to result in its own extinction if Washington continues to refuse further negotiations? We think not!
Pyongyang seems to have recklessly concluded that the best way to get the Bush administration to the negotiating table is by creating a nuclear crisis.
Thus far, Washington is not taking the bait, insisting that it will not respond to North Korean “blackmail.” Nor should the rest of the international community buy into Pyongyang’s argument that living up to its nuclear commitments is a bilateral issue that must be resolved between itself and the United States.
Disabling the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, monitoring equipment violates North Korean international obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT. A decision to reprocess its spent fuel violates the 1992 Joint South-North Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as well. North Korean nuclear proliferation is an international problem that demands an international response.
The director of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, noted early last week that North Korea continued to disrupt IAEA safeguard measures at its nuclear facilities: “To date, seals have been cut and surveillance equipment impeded at a total of three facilities at Yongbyon: the 5-megawatt reactor including the associated spent fuel pond, the fuel rod fabrication plant and the reprocessing facility.” This rapidly deteriorating situation, ElBaradei warned, raises “grave nonproliferation concerns.”
Pyongyang has a right to restart the Yongbyon reactor. It was frozen under the terms of the 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework that both sides now describe as having been “nullified.” But it does not have a right to remove IAEA seals and cameras or to pursue a nuclear weapons program. These rights were given up when Pyongyang signed the NPT and 1992 North-South Denuclearization agreements. These represent promises made to the international community and to the South, not to the U.S.
Nonetheless, North Korea continues to try to blame the U.S. for this self-induced predicament. North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper, a mouthpiece of the government, has editorialized: “There is no need for any third party to meddle in the nuclear issue on the Peninsula. The issue should be settled between the DPRK and the U.S., the parties responsible for it.”
The facts tell a different story. As recently as Sept. 17 (a few short weeks before the North’s startling “confession” that it had a uranium enrichment program), North Korean leader Kim Jong Il pledged to visiting Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro that he would honor all nuclear commitments. The IAEA, South Korea and Japan, not to mention the international community at large, are not “meddling”; all are directly affected by North Korea’s latest attempt at nuclear blackmail.
While there is a certain logic in Washington’s argument that new negotiations are pointless if the North remains unwilling to honor its past commitments, a strategy of complete “benign neglect” is politically difficult to sustain and could contribute to the North’s continuing attempts to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea. This is why Washington, after close coordination with Seoul and Tokyo, should call on U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to become personally involved.
Assuming that the IAEA’s efforts to bring North Korea back into compliance continue to be rebuffed, the secretary general should go to Pyongyang and, with the full weight of the U.N. Security Council behind him, demand immediate North Korean compliance with its international obligations. He should also seek an explanation from North Korea regarding its “catastrophic crisis of a war” threats.
While the U.S. has shown a reluctance to go to the Security Council to deal with genuine security threats, the case here is compelling. The IAEA is directed to go to the Security Counil when confronted by noncompliance with a treaty signatory; it is the logical agent by which the international community acts. Moreover, the Bush administration has reiterated at every opportunity its preference for a diplomatic solution.
The Security Council is the best forum for that, given its own “no negotiations” stance. Using the secretary general’s good offices also reinforces that this is not a bilateral issue but a global one that pits North Korea against the rest of the international community.
North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship is a direct challenge to the international nonproliferation regime and to the security and stability of Northeast Asia. All countries have a stake in seeing this situation resolved peacefully. This can best be achieved if the international community speaks with one voice. The Security Council is the podium from which it can best be heard.
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