BRUSSELS — The crisis in Iraq overshadows everything. Yet far more dangerous is the Korean crisis. At worse, the Iraqi crisis will lead to a conventional war with tens of thousands of casualties. In contrast, millions of lives could be at risk in the Korean crisis — triggered by U.S. revelations that North Korea has uranium-enrichment technology — if North Korea makes good on its threat to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” and as a last resort decides to “go nuclear” and randomly strike Japan with missiles.
Washington expects to be able to easily repel a North Korean invasion of the South, but it will be frustrated if the North fails to play the U.S. game and merely uses its 2,500 rocket launchers and 10,000 guns dug in near the border to rain half a million shells an hour on Seoul and force the United States to invade the North. The U.S. estimates that in such a scenario up to 100,000 American soldiers would die.
The problem is that the world’s press portrays the unloved North’s leadership as insane and its motives as mysterious, and the U.S. State Department tends to view things in a “cowboy and Indian” world of black and white. But this is not so.
Equally untrue is the idea that Pyongyang poses the world’s biggest nuclear-proliferation threat. That distinction belongs to America’s ally, Pakistan.
In 1993 there was a similar crisis on the Korean Peninsula. At that time the U.S. threatened to bomb the North’s Russian-designed graphite-moderated reactor at Yongbyon because it was capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium and the International Atomic Energy Agency was not being allowed to inspect the plant.
This was resolved by the intervention of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who brokered a deal in 1994 with the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in which Pyongyang suspended its nuclear program and was supposed to eventually allow fuel rods to be taken out of the country in exchange for a political rapprochement and technical assistance.
The U.S. was to normalize diplomatic relations, end its half-century embargo and sanctions against the North and arrange for the construction of two light-water nuclear reactors. To meet the energy gap created by the abandoned reactor program, the U.S. was also supposed to provide 500,000 tons per annum of heavy fuel oil (HFO) for North Korean oil-fired power stations until the reactors began operating in late 2003.
Both sides cheated. The embargo was not lifted. Diplomatic relations were not established. The light water reactor project is running at least seven years late and the HFO deliveries have been fitful.
Twelve months ago, bad delivery became bad faith. U.S. President George W. Bush listed North Korea as a member of the Axis of Evil trinity, and in a national strategy paper authorized the U.S. military “to detect and destroy an adversary’s WMD (weapons of mass destruction) assets before the weapons are used.”
After the recent crisis began, the U.S. strong-armed Japan, South Korea and the European Union to halt oil shipments to North Korea, and then acted surprised when Pyongyang stated that it would resume work on the Yongbyon plant now that the 1994 Framework Agreement had been abrogated.
The problem was that there was bad faith on the U.S. side from the start, even under the Clinton administration.
U.S. Ambassador Robert Gallucci believed he was just buying time to await North Korea’s collapse when he negotiated the 1994 Framework Agreement with Pyongyang. When asked in private about the difficulties of keeping the promise to construct the two light-water reactors, he stated North Korea would disappear within five years and so it was a question of merely playing for time.
Unfortunately, he failed to see that, unlike the case in Central and Eastern Europe, where communism was imposed from the outside, the regime of Kim Il Sung was an indigenous product with strong Korean cultural and historical roots. So its much stronger resilience allowed it to weather the crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
North Korea cheated as well. It has been exporting missile technology to the world’s less fashionable regimes — to Syria and Libya, Iran, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (but not to Iraq) — for decades.
This was perfectly legal under the 1994 Framework Agreement, as Washington demonstrated so recently when it was forced to allow a seized North Korean ship carrying scud missiles to continue its journey to Yemen.
It was this trade that gave the North Koreans their nuclear opportunity. Pakistan had a flourishing nuclear program in the 1980s when it was working closely with the U.S. to undermine Afghanistan’s communist Soviet-backed regime. But by the mid-1990s Pakistan was in deep financial trouble.
To keep up with its arms race with India, it needed to import North Korean technology, so it offered to trade nuclear knowhow for Pyongyang’s missile expertise. The Pakistanis gave North Korea sophisticated technology in the form of high-speed centrifuges capable of producing weapons-grade uranium, plus warhead-design information, weapons-testing data from Pakistan’s own nuclear tests and possibly personnel support.
Pakistan refuses to sign the Nonproliferation Treaty (as does India and Israel), engages in proliferation and some members of its nuclear establishment demonstrate great sympathy for al-Qaeda. As one American commentator put it, “Right now, the most dangerous country in the world is Pakistan. If we’re incinerated next week, it will be because of HEU (highly enriched uranium) that was given to al-Qaeda by Pakistan.” Actually it won’t be Pakistan, but it may be Pakistanis. But the U.S. lifted the embargo on Pakistan just two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center.
So North Korea was to be the whipping boy for Pakistan. Pyongyang could read the writing on the wall as well as anybody else. The priority was regime survival. For that it needed delivery on the 1994 promises. Its only viable exports were missiles and other military technologies, and the economy was in meltdown. Thus a crisis with the U.S. was inevitable.
How best navigate to through it? First, by not allowing the timetable to be set to suit the U.S. Department of Defense. The North deliberately triggered the latest crisis with the hope that under the circumstances the U.S. would negotiate rather than retaliate.
When U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted Pyongyang in October, U.S. hardliners gave him no room to move. So when North Korea offered to abandon the enrichment program in return for an American promise not to attack and a commitment to normalize relations, the answer was no negotiations without the program’s abandonment.
Since then we’ve seen tit-for-tat escalation to a position that echoes the situation in 1993. The North wants a negotiated solution, but war seems increasingly likely. Yet a peaceful outcome can be achieved by treating the North Koreans as rational — if unpleasant — interlocutors rather than as the crazed lunatics portrayed by the press. This would enable us to avoid a disaster on the Korean Peninsula whose global consequences are incalculable.
At the moment we have a pragmatic regime facing a dangerously ideological counterpart. A few are confused as to which is which. Maybe one solution to getting the talks started again would be to act upon a Jan. 30 resolution by the European Parliament, which followed an announcement that a high level European Union delegation will visit Pyongyang in February. The resolution proposes the convening of seven-party talks on the Korean crisis involving the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, China and the U.S. Discussions would focus on economic and security concerns as well as nuclear disarmament.
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