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Friday, June 10, 2005



Alliance lacks solidarity in handling North Korean nuclear crisis

Staff writer

North Korea's nuclear weapons program has reached a critical phase that calls for a fresh set of responses backed by a solid alliance of the United States, Japan and South Korea, said American and Japanese experts who took part in a recent symposium in Tokyo.

News photo
Panelists discuss North Korea's nuclear weapons program and regional security at a symposium at Keidanren Kaikan on June 1: (from left) Masashi Nishihara, Don Oberdofer and Kent Calder.

However, the triangular alliance today appears to be on shaky grounds more than ever in dealing with the reclusive regime that has now declared itself to be a "full-fledged nuclear weapons state," the experts said during the June 1 symposium at Keidanren Kaikan, organized by Keizai Koho Center.

The panelists discussed the need for a U.S.-Japan-South Korean alliance in the face of of the latest developments in North Korea's nuclear program. They also explored possible stumbling blocks to that alliance.

"The situation that exists today is fundamentally different from that which existed up until very recently," said Don Oberdorfer, distinguished journalist-in-residence and adjunct professor with the School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C..

"North Korea has crossed the threshold to becoming . . . a nuclear weapons state," said the veteran journalist, who has covered U.S. policy in Northeast Asia since the 1960s.

Oberdorfer explained how North Korea's nuclear ambitions date back to the 1950-51 Korean War, when it came under the threat of a nuclear attack by U.S. forces.

When China succeeded in its first nuclear weapons test in 1964, North Korea's then leader, Kim Il Sung, asked Chinese Communist chief Mao Zedong in vain to share the technology with its ally.

During the 1970s, North Korea repeated the same request to China when it was revealed that South Korea was engaging in a secret nuclear weapons program, which was later frozen after the U.S. warned Seoul that it would otherwise terminate their alliance, he said.

North Korea then pursued its own nuclear scheme until the situation generated a crisis in 1993 and 1994 over its program to produce plutonium. The crisis was averted in 1994 when Pyongyang, under an agreement with the United States, consented to freeze the program in return for construction of light-water nuclear reactors by an international consortium.

Then came a U.S. intelligence revelation in 2002 that North Korea appeared to have been engaged in a highly enriched uranium program — another way of producing nuclear weapon materials.

This time, the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush — having labeled North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" and at that time busy preparing for a war on Iraq — made it clear that it would not negotiate with Pyongyang to have its nuclear program halted, Oberdorfer recalled.

When then assistant U.S. secretary of state James Kelly visited Pyongyang in October 2002 with the U.S. intelligence on the enriched uranium program, he was under instruction by Bush not to negotiate — even though North Korean officials made it clear to him that Pyongyang wanted to negotiate with the U.S. over the program.

So instead of offering any new carrot to have North Korea give up the enriched uranium program, the Bush administration cut off the shipment of fuel oil that it had been supplying under the 1994 agreement and began talking about the possibility of sanctions, he said. This, he added, led North Korea to reopen its frozen program to produce plutonium.

Nuclear success

North Korea has since proceeded to rapidly produce as much nuclear materials as possible, "and I think to a considerable degree they have succeeded in that," Oberdorfer said.

"It was the judgment of the U.S. intelligence earlier that North Korea possibly had amassed enough material before the 1994 agreement for one or maybe two nuclear weapons," he told the audience.

But after Pyongyang broke out of the 1994 agreement and began rapidly creating nuclear materials in 2003 and 2004, the U.S. intelligence now believes — although they do not say it aloud — that North Korea has produced enough material for five or six additional nuclear weapons, he said.

Then came a series of statements from North Korea this year, including one in February that the country now has nuclear weapons and would not be returning to the six-party talks, which also involved the U.S., Japan, China, South Korea, Russia. In March, North Korea said it had become a "full-fledged nuclear weapons state."

"I believe this represents not only the opinion of North Korea; I think it represents reality," he said. "None of us outside of North Korea knows the details of exactly what they are doing and what they have. But there's plenty of evidence that they are not bluffing about this — that they actually do have nuclear materials."

So what should be done about it? "The best answer is of course negotiations to persuade them to give it up. . . . It's hard for me to believe that they would give it up, having already created these materials which are so powerful and dangerous," Oberdorfer said.

None of the other options are promising either, he noted.

One of them is to "live with North Korea as a nuclear weapons power" — a scenario that Pyongyang itself would like to see, he said.

He then asked, would this prompt South Korea, with its nuclear industry and talented scientists in the field, to try to match the capability of the North? And what about Japan and Taiwan, despite the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States?

"These things can get out of control," he warned.

Another is to exert further pressure — such as through economic sanctions — on North Korea to have it give up the nuclear program, or at least to limit production of nuclear materials, he said.

But this option could have "extremely dangerous" consequences of leaving North Korea with "no option except to sell nuclear materials to the highest bidder — to foreign countries," Oberdorfer warned.

More dangerous would be the third option — to try to bring down the North Korean regime through pressure or military action, he added.

"I think the situation is ripe for some kind of an important new initiative," Oberdorfer told the audience.

"It probably has to come initially from the U.S. government, but with the assistance and understanding of the partners in Northeast Asia — Japan and South Korea — and to a great degree China.

"I don't see that kind of initiative anywhere on the horizon, but unless something is done, I'm afraid we'll be dealing with a nuclear North Korea in a way that's going to be difficult for all of our countries in the months to come," he said.

But just as close cooperation among the U.S., Japan and South Korea is needed more than ever, the trilateral ties are becoming increasingly shaky, said Masashi Nishihara, president of the National Defense Academy.

"Cooperation among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea (in dealing with North Korea) is becoming extremely difficult," Nishihara told the audience.

Nishihara attributed the changing landscape of the trilateral relationship mainly to "fundamental changes" in South Korean policy vis-a-vis the North.

South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun has begun to emphasize harmony with North Korea while saying that his country wants to become a "balancer" in Northeast Asia — an indication that Seoul would keep some distance from the Japan-U.S. alliance in the region, he remarked.

"South Korea does oppose North Korea's nuclear weapons development, but rather than trying to stop the program at all cost, Seoul places priority on maintaining dialogue with and the stability of the North," Nishihara charged.

In recent months, Japan's relations with Seoul have been marred by the resurgence of tensions over a territorial row centered on a group of disputed islets in the Sea of Japan — called Takeshima in Japan and Tok-do in Korea — as well as South Korean protests over Japan's approval of a history textbook that critics say whitewashes the country's wartime aggression and colonial rule of its neighbors.

Japan and the United States are not necessarily united either, Nishihara noted.

Domestically, Tokyo considers past abductions of Japanese nationals as its No. 1 concern in dealing with North Korea, and with its talks with Pyongyang on the issue stalemated, it is not clear how far Japan can go along with the U.S. once the Bush administration starts taking a more hardline approach, he said.

Such discord among the three parties, Nishihara went on, benefits North Korea "because it sees no reason to return to the six-party talks in haste or make concessions on the nuclear issue" as long as those countries remain divided. Kent Calder, director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies, an affiliate of SAIS at Johns Hopkins University, said Northeast Asia today is a "significantly different" region than it was a decade ago, or even five years ago.

One of the major changes is the fundamental transformation of South Korean politics, which he said is altering the country's triangular relationship with the U.S. and Japan.

The South Korean political system has undergone a series of changes since the late 1980s — first with the introduction of competitive presidential elections, local government reform, and ultimately the election of President Kim Dae Jung — then an opposition candidate — in 1998.

But the biggest changes are taking place in South Korea's civil society, Calder said, citing the rising importance of populism.

Populist changes

Groups outside the bureaucracy and the mainstream business community are playing a greater role in the political process, with nongovernmental organizations playing a key role in the election of Kim Dae Jung and his successor Roh Moo Hyun, he noted.

There also is the generational change in South Korean society, he said.

This process has been aided by the Internet, but South Korea's tremendous success in co-hosting the 2002 FIFA World Cup also created a group consciousness and sense of unity among the country's younger generation.

Growing political activism among the South Korean youths demonstrated itself in the form of coordinated protest movements against the U.S. bases in the country, and also played a key role in Roh's election campaign, Calder said.

Such changes, he said, are having a major impact on — and causing problems to — South Korea's relations with the U.S. and Japan. Furthermore, there is the changing geopolitics in the region, particularly the economic rise of China, he added.

Oberdorfer said other countries must realize that many in South Korea's younger generation see North Korea as a part of their own nation that had been united for centuries until they were divided at the end of World War II.

"It's a very different concept than (the one) that motivated and guided South Korea under its military rulers and anticommunist viewpoints" until the 1980s, he added.

Calder pointed to the need to "think more proactively about where the region is going and to think about some new approaches to the region."

One step would be to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance — a move which should be done with care so as not to stir up "paranoid" reactions from other countries in the region that tend to focus on the military aspect of Tokyo-Washington ties, he said.

There also is a need for the U.S., Japan and South Korea to have a more cooperative agenda — particularly on energy issues, because it relates to North Korea's nuclear issue, he stressed.

The United States can also play a mediating role in preventing tensions between Japan and South Korea from escalating — just as it did when the two countries were in negotiations over the 1965 normalization of ties and after their relationship was strained following the 1974 attempted assassination of then South Korean President Park Chun Hee, Calder said.

In that incident, the assassin shot the president's wife to death with a gun stolen from a Japanese police station.

With the possibility of a North Korean nuclear weapons test on the horizon, Japan, the U.S. and South Korea should work together to clearly warn Pyongyang about the consequences of such an action, said Nishihara of the National Defense Academy.

At the same time, the U.S. should improve its ways of communication with North Korea to ease the current tension, he noted, adding that one option would be to think about establishing formal ties with Pyongyang.

Oberdorfer noted that prior to the Bush administration, the U.S. government "certainly recognized Kim Jong Il," with President Bill Clinton exchanging letters with the North Korean leader.

It is not a "good idea" for President Bush to speak in "condemnatory personal terms" about Kim, he said. While the late President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" in 1983, he used that phrase only once and he never personally attacked any of the Soviet leaders. And Reagan was able to negotiate with Moscow, he recalled.

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