North Korea's gamble

BULLETINS ABOUT North Korea's self-acknowledged uranium enrichment programme to make nuclear weapons, and of Pakistan's role in helping Pyongyang, have pushed both Washington and New Delhi to highlight North Korean perfidy and Pakistani duplicity respectively. But these are actually only minor themes in a more complicated overall picture. This was brought home sharply in the context of my recent visit to Japan and a sustained discussion with some Japanese experts on Korea, who outside of the Korean peninsula are really the most acute and independent Korea-watchers. The fuller story begins with the historic decisions of Kim Dae Jung in South Korea and the Japanese Government to explore the possibility of a rapprochement with North Korea. For Washington this came as an unwelcome shock. The U.S. now looks forward to a conservative replacement of Mr. Kim in the coming South Korean elections and a deceleration, if not end, to Seoul's `Sunshine' policy. For Japan, the move towards North Korea was one of those truly rare occasions when Tokyo was prepared to defy Washington in a matter of foreign policy, especially when North Korea had been openly designated part of the "axis of evil".

Washington's chance came just before the Japanese Premier, Junichiro Koizumi's visit in late September to Pyongyang. In order to prevent serious progress at the coming summit meeting, the Japanese leader was told of the North Korean efforts to build a uranium enrichment facility through missile trades with Pakistan and this matter was duly brought up by Mr. Koizumi at the summit. The text of those talks has so far not been made public but it appears that there was at least a tacit admission of the effort. Of course, the dramatic public revelations that followed about the violation of the 1994 agreement with the U.S., the apology for the killing of five South Korean sailors in a naval battle and the admission of kidnapping Japanese citizens had a clear purpose. They were not the declaration of a new posture of barefaced belligerence but an attempt to clear the decks, as it were, for moving North Korea in a new direction.

Behind this lies not just a new strategic-political reorientation but also an economic one. North Korea's admission of its uranium enrichment programme is an attempt to establish some bargaining counters vis-a-vis the U.S.: to end its nuclear weapons programme and even its missile development programme (it had already indicated its willingness to do this to Tokyo) for an end to U.S. hostility towards it and the initiation of a new era of political normality. Pyongyang also wants a deepening of the new thaw with Japan. Supporters of this line in North Korea decided quite sensibly that no matter how much it sought to militarily strengthen itself, Pyongyang would never be a match for either Japan or the U.S. nor even provide itself a minimal form of deterrent against them. Abandoning the military-nuclear programme of ambitious power projection therefore made sense especially since it could still retain, without nuclear weapons or long-range missiles, a significant military capacity against South Korea, which was all it really needed by way of military leverage.

Economically speaking and generally unnoticed abroad, Kim Jong Il has embarked on a genuine reform programme breaking with its past command structure. These measures are still in the early stages but the changes are real and the direction set is a decisively new one, which North Korea's leaders know they cannot continue without significant external help, both technical and financial, especially from Japan. But this in turn requires a sea change in North Korean relations with the all-powerful U.S. Prices and wages have been raised for the first time in more than 20 years, bringing them closer to international levels especially for food items. Food rationing (except for rice) has been abolished while farmers are getting higher product prices. Private plots have been allowed for some years but collectives can now grow cash crops once they have fulfilled their grain quota. Profit incentives have been introduced in factory management. Production beyond stipulated quotas means profits that can be retained and distributed among workers as bonuses. Special economic zones for attracting foreign investment are on the anvil.

Incidentally, despite all the brouhaha in India, neither the Japanese nor the Americans are worried about the uranium enrichment programme, which is very far from being completed. It is the plutonium bombs that might already exist (perhaps produced before 1994) that is the main concern. It is not certain that these exist but Tokyo has some reason to believe that there could be two to five such bombs. The real question is whether the North Korean gamble will succeed. Current signs are not good. Washington believes its aggressive `axis of evil' diplomacy has pushed a more desperate North Korea to come clean. At the recent APEC conference when the leaders of the U.S., Japan and South Korea met, the joint statement that emerged shows Seoul and Tokyo moving some way towards Washington's harder posture. Neither Seoul nor Tokyo has yet abandoned its independent line of seeking a degree of rapprochement with North Korea and simply accepting the old position of subservience to Washington. But by declaring that there would be no conclusion to its discussions with Pyongyang unless the nuclear issue was fully sorted out, i.e. the programme dismantled, they have signalled their new and closer realignment with Washington. The nuclear issue is one that North Korean leaders believe is up for discussion only between themselves and the U.S., and should not come into their bilateral discussions with South Korea and Japan. As it is, the public anger against North Korea in Japan caused by the news of the kidnappings has reduced Tokyo's room for manoeuvre.

If the U.S. has so far gone along with the publicly proclaimed declarations of Seoul and Tokyo that there should be a peaceful resolution of the new tensions between North Korea and the others, it is because it wants to handle one crisis at a time: first sort out the Iraq affair to its satisfaction and then turn its attention to North Korea. Indeed, if events unfold in the desired manner in West Asia then there is no reason whatsoever to think that the U.S. will not resort to belligerence rather than appeasement as the way to handle North Korea. This can certainly mean pre-emptive air strikes to take out designated targets (including perceived nuclear facilities) and military reinforcement of U.S. presence in South Korea.

But this is clearly a gamble. Pyongyang's decision to make those startling public disclosures was more an effort to end the logjam created by the Bush Administration's hardening of diplomatic posture towards North Korea. Moreover, regardless of what happens in West Asia, it is still unlikely that the U.S. will take the `soft' approach. In a wider strategic sense, the U.S. does not want early Korean reunification or the easing of North Korean related tensions in Northeast Asia for this would weaken the rationale for its own strategic-military presence in the region and its `containment' efforts vis-a-vis China for which it needs to strengthen the dependence of Japan and South Korea (and Taiwan) on it, not ease these dependencies through the progressive diminution of the North Korean `threat'.

China, for its part, is certainly disturbed by any idea of a future U.S. military attack on North Korea, as well as the precedent this could set for the future. But it has also seized the opportunity to signal its happy alignment with the U.S. in its effort to end the nuclear programme of North Korea, hoping thereby to defuse and weaken anti-Chinese sentiments and attitudes that are of course prevalent in various important policy-shaping circles in and around Washington. Finally, there will be outside pressures from Seoul and Tokyo on North Korea, as well as internal pressures, to unilaterally make more concessions before year-end so as to make it extremely difficult for the U.S. to do anything but move towards `cooperation' and `negotiations' with it. Whether this will happen or not remains to be seen.

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