- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 26, 2002

In a Dec. 12 letter to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Pyongyang announced its intention to restart the country's nuclear program. "Accordingly, the IAEA is requested to take necessary measures to remove the seals and monitoring cameras on all of our nuclear facilities," Pyongyang wrote.
North Korea has a flare for the dramatic, and on Saturday it took decisive steps to make good on this threat. IAEA monitors were summoned to the five-megawatt nuclear reactor in Yongbyon to find a dismantling party underway. As monitoring cameras were disabled, taped over or turned away from their subjects, and doors that sealed the reactor were opened, Bush administration officials say the North Koreans celebrated by singing, dancing and even drinking. On Sunday, the party continued. The North began unsealing the sensitive site that contains 8,000 spent-plutonium rods and later, the nuclear processing center itself.
It doesn't take a nuclear scientist to see that all this is a recipe for disaster. If North Korea takes the next step to reprocess the spent-plutonium rods, Pyongyang will have enough fissile material for as many as five nuclear warheads. But, if there is a bright side, it is that last weekend's actions are consistent with the usual snafu that constitutes North Korean foreign policy. Tantrums are periodically thrown to rattle the international community just enough to remind it that Pyongyang wants new goodies.
In the last administration, this kind of behavior would have resulted in near-instantaneous appeasement: simpering diplomats with renewed pleas for restraint, and gifts of food, oil and money. But this week, the State Department responded soberly. The Bush administration "will not enter into dialogue in response to threats or broken commitments, and we will not bargain or offer inducements for North Korea to live up to the treaties and agreements it has signed," a State Department spokesman said.
The Bush administration has been careful not to describe the North's actions as a "crisis," although Pyongyang's actions are clearly intended to create a crisis, and that's not sitting well among some lawmakers. But some prominent lawmakers have chosen to leap to a crisis mentality. "This is a greater danger immediately to U.S. interests at this very moment, in my view, than Saddam Hussein is," said Sen. Joseph Biden, Delaware Democrat, on Sunday.
For a ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Biden's remark is surprisingly careless. Other than in its deplorability, in no respect are the North Korean and Iraqi situations similar. We suspect that Mr. Biden knows this, and that, like other liberal Democrats, his urgency with respect to North Korea is, at least in part, an excuse to go soft on Iraq. As James Lilley, a former ambassador to China, said, "This is American domestic politics. The situations are difficult; they're different. They each have to be handled in a different way."
For starters, given the lack of clear regional powers, the United States can assert itself in the Mideast in a way it cannot in the Far East. Then, too, Iraq has a stronger history of real aggression. Despite constant saber rattling from Pyongyang and a 1998 missile test that sent a Taiepodong screaming over Japan's main island, the North hasn't waged a military campaign since the war that cleaved the islands in two 50 years ago. And should it come to that point, the North has the immediate capability to rain down tens of thousands of warheads on neighboring Japan and South Korea a capability Iraq does not have. Lastly, by dint of its wholly dilapidated economy, North Korea is more susceptible to diplomatic leverage than the relatively independent Iraq.
So what is the U.S. strategy for dealing with North Korea? To stall. The IAEA plans to hold an emergency session in early January to assess whether Pyongyang has broken its international commitments, and, if it is found in violation, the matter would likely be referred to the U.N. Security Council. Still, for that body to act, it would require a permanent council member to champion the cause.
The United States expects further escalatory steps by North Korea and would rather push the issue when the case against Pyongyang is beyond refutation. "Every step North Korea takes that is consistently a bad step only bolsters the case [for international action] later on," a Bush official said. China and Russia, meanwhile, have been slow to react to Pyongyang's shenanigans in the past, and it's doubtful they will push the issue. But there are fears within the administration that this approach might be sandbagged by France, another permanent security council member. Paris has long tired of Pyongyang's antics and frequently chides Washington for giving in to Pyongyang's blackmail. The worry among U.S. officials is that the Chirac administration will force the United Nations to act. And, as with Mr. Biden and his fellow liberal lawmakers, there's an element of politics involved: Getting tough on North Korea will relieve some of the heat France has taken for its reluctance to take on Iraq.
In truth, there's little substantively that the United Nations can do to change North Korea. Full-out war is not a likely scenario even with Pyongyang's latest actions and embargoes and sanctions will have no effect on the decrepit North Korean economy. As Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute said, the most effective method for putting the squeeze on North Korea is through bilateral agreements to stanch the flow of international aid.
That prospect is promising. Japanese sentiment is with the United States. Despite some incautious remarks by Russia's deputy foreign minister, working relations between Washington and Moscow also bode well. China is a reluctant aid donor generally, and even if it cannot be relied on to halt its subsidies to Pyongyang, Beijing is unlikely to backfill the loss of aid elsewhere. Even in South Korea, where last week saw the election of Pyongyang soft-liner Roh Moo-hyun as president, the question of continued subsidies is not a straightforward one. The hawkish Grand National Party still controls the South Korean legislature, and the North's recent actions will only bolster their opposition to continued aid.
Faced with the choice of behaving or further economic disintegration, Pyongyang may choose if we are lucky the former. But the next few months are critical. If the North continues with its plans to build nuclear weapons, it won't just be the United States that will have something to say. A nuclear North would likely result in a nuclear Japan and South Korea, and that's something the regional powers of Russia and China would prefer not to have. Indeed, it would likely prompt a party Pyongyang would rather not host.


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