Though impoverished and starved, North Korea owns nuclear arms and is developing long-range ballistic missiles, thus posing a growing military threat to the Asia-Pacific region.

As the regime of Kim Jong Il has invited sanctions from the international community, it is becoming even more isolated. Under the circumstances, North Korea’s national goal, the survival of the Kim regime, may be at risk.

Ever since the issuance of joint statement a year ago from the six-nation talks on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, North Korea has boycotted resumption of the talks in protest of U.S. financial sanctions. In July, North Korea conducted ballistic-missile tests, prompting the United Nations Security Council to adopt a resolution of condemnation. North Korea’s brinkmanship is bound to bring increasing pressure from Japan, the United States and other nations.

One reason Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who assumed power Sept. 26, is popular among the Japanese public is his hardline stance against Pyongyang, which is responsible for the past abduction of Japanese nationals.

And Abe’s confidence in his diplomatic skills is growing. As chief Cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, he coordinated with White House officials in adopting the U.N. Security Council resolution against North Korea, and took the initiative in imposing Japanese financial sanctions on North Korea on Sept. 19.

Crucial elements of Abe’s “assertive diplomacy” are “national interest and initiative.” Before assuming power, he said it is most important that Japanese diplomacy secure national interest and play a leading role in multilateral negotiations.

Depending on North Korean strategies, the Abe administration is likely to put more emphasis on applying pressure — such as stronger sanctions — than on attempting dialogue in its dealings with the North.

In late September, a high-ranking North Korean official is said to have told a visiting U.S. expert that Pyongyang was planning to start nuclear-fuel reprocessing operations before yearend to extract plutonium for nuclear arms. It would do this by removing spent nuclear-fuel rods from a 5,000-megawatt experimental graphite-moderated nuclear reactor. In May 2005, North Korea removed 8,000 used nuclear-fuel rods.

According to South Korean intelligence sources, North Korea could conduct nuclear tests anytime, subject to approval by Kim. It is thought that North Korea’s mentioning of its plan is aimed at prompting the U.S. to start bilateral talks with the North.

In September the International Atomic Energy Agency adopted a resolution urging North Korea to immediately return to the six-nation talks and abandon its nuclear arms. This reflected growing international concern that Pyongyang may be trying to speed up its nuclear-arms development while it boycotts the six-party talks.

In a joint statement issued at the six-nation talks in September 2005, North Korea promised to abandon its nuclear arms and nuclear programs and rejoin the nuclear nonproliferation treaty soon. The U.S. confirmed it had no intention of attacking North Korea, and Tokyo and Washington pledged efforts to normalize relations with Pyongyang.

However, resolving the North Korean crisis became deadlocked when Pyongyang demanded that the U.S. lift financial sanctions as a condition for resuming the six-nation talks, and insisted on direct talks with Washington. Apparently the purpose of the North Korean missile tests in July was to get the U.S. to agree to direct talks. The international community, however, did not react as North Korea had hoped. Although the U.N. Security Council resolution was watered down to avoid a veto by China and Russia, it was a bitter pill for North Korea.

Following the resolution, the Group of Eight industrialized nations’ summit in July and a series of ministerial talks related to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations adopted a number of resolutions against North Korea.

The U.N. resolution demanded that North Korea freeze its missile tests and that U.N. member nations halt transfers of missile-related materials and technologies, as well as financial assets, to North Korea. The comprehensive resolution also demanded that North Korea return to the six-party talks and abandon its nuclear programs. China failed to veto the resolution because of the strong international criticism of North Korea.

Frustrated by the deadlocked six-party talks, the U.S. began to focus on multilateral efforts to contain North Korea. By taking advantage of the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in July in Kuala Lumpur, the U.S. got the 10 ASEAN foreign ministers to confirm the need for the implementation of the Security Council resolution.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing has urged his North Korean counterpart, Paek Nam Sun, to attend the six-nation talks, but the latter has declined, showing Beijing’s limited influence on Pyongyang these days.

The U.S. tried to convene a second round of 10-nation talks on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, which opened in September. China and Russia’s refusal to attend dealt a blow to U.S. hopes for multilateral dialogue.

Furthermore, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, who is pushing an engagement policy with the North, expressed explicit opposition to international sanctions based on the Security Council resolution at a news conference following his talks with President George W. Bush, indicating sharp differences between Tokyo and Washington over sanctions against Pyongyang.

It is now easy for Pyongyang to see the weaknesses of its adversaries. As a freedom-loving nation, South Korea should rebuild its alliances with Japan and the U.S. to deal with security threats from the North.

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