P.S. Suryanarayana

A standoff between Tokyo and Pyongyang has raised questions about the six-party accord's effectiveness.

THE LATEST six-party accord on the North Korean nuclear arms issue can, ironically, lead to proliferation, if the gathering new clouds are not dispelled by the collective forum. The six parties are China as the Chair, the United States, the two Koreas, Japan, and Russia. Pyongyang's "sovereign" compulsions and some aspects of Japan's special equation with the U.S. can foul up North Korea's de-nuclearisation and lead to a revision of the existing international nuclear order.

The international community has almost ignored the mood that gripped the Democratic People's Republic of Korea after it acceded to the February 13 six-party accord. The DPRK agreed to "shut down and seal" its plutonium-related Yongbyon nuclear facility for its "eventual abandonment." However, Pyongyang's official news agency emphasised that the DPRK had agreed to a "temporary suspension of the operation" at its nuclear facilities.

The message is that the DPRK has agreed only to a nuclear freeze. The U.S. and others have chosen, for the present, not to see this as a storm signal. The chief U.S. delegate, Christopher Hill, said: "We are not interested in [just] a freeze. [But] we [the DPRK's five interlocutors] didn't think that you could disable and finally dismantle and abandon a reactor unless you first shut it down [as in a freeze]."

For now, the DPRK's post-accord statement and Mr. Hill's views smack of semantics. But Pyongyang's interlocutors cannot be unaware that North Korea has hoisted a proliferation storm signal, although at a low level of alert.

A new showdown between Tokyo and Pyongyang can also decelerate or halt the six-party process, if the U.S. chooses to treat Japan, its close ally, as an exception to the non-proliferation agenda.

The possibility of a DPRK-Japan showdown is now real. Citing the intransigence of Pyongyang about the issues arising out of its abduction of several Japanese during the Cold War, Tokyo has distanced itself from a key aspect of this accord. Pending "progress" on the abduction issues, Tokyo will not extend energy aid to Pyongyang under the six-party process. And, Pyongyang has begun to propagate a message, through non-formal channels for a start, that the failure of even one of the six parties to associate fully with the accord might de-legitimise the deal itself.

The DPRK-Japan standoff can, therefore, lead to a new scenario of proliferation. Pyongyang could feel free to stay its nuclear armament course. And, if North Korea refuses to honour its commitment to an eventual de-nuclearisation, Japan could then face a nuclear dilemma. Surely, Japan still pledges nuclear pacifism. However, as East Asia specialist Michael Yahuda noted sometime ago, a shift has occurred in the country's politics following the "collapse" of the Japanese Socialist Party, which had "played a crucial role in upholding the pacifistic tendency in [post-imperial] Japan."

Dominant question

A question increasingly heard behind the scenes in East Asia now is whether the U.S. would tacitly encourage Japan to make the atom bomb to meet a future North Korean challenge. On one side, it is said that Japan, protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, will not want to give it up unless its credibility is lost. The counter-argument is that Japan cannot forever depend on the U.S. nuclear umbrella that will be under the control of Washington, not Tokyo. A related poser is whether the U.S. will always see Japan's security needs in the same way as Tokyo does.

For example, many Japanese already are disappointed that the U.S. has now agreed to a six-party statement that does not address the DPRK's suspected uranium enrichment programme.

It is in this complex situation that the U.S. has temporarily deployed its radar-evading stealth bombers at a base in Japan to reassure it of continued American support.

Popular Japanese opposition to such deployments is a different matter, even when important.

Also, U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, who arrived in Tokyo on February 20, is trying to humour Japan, which is increasingly becoming critical to East Asian security.

The new upturn in the U.S.-China engagement also acquires importance. According to Wang Jisi, a noted Chinese specialist on global politics, U.S. primacy should be distinguished from specific American policies. Not surprisingly, therefore, the North Korean nuclear issue, with unpredictable consequences for East Asia, has brought China and the U.S. to compatible wavelengths.