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The U.S. and North Korea Could be
Heading for the Nuclear Abyss



Jan. 13th, 1999

LONDON - If it's eight years since the Gulf War and Saddam Hussein still rules then it is as well not to forget it's 46 years since the end of the Korean War and Kim Il Sung still rules. Well, although dead, he is still "Eternal President", whilst his son, Kim Jong Il manages day to day mortal affairs from his position as Secretary General of the Korean Workers' Party.

In terms of danger posed to the outside world North Korea is a much greater threat than Iraq. North Korea is much further ahead in the outcasts' rush to produce an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. It clearly has the capacity to develop--and may well have long ago built--nuclear weapons. And it is not far short of being able to construct an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Last August it sent a three stage rocket hurtling over Japan--in an attempt to launch a satellite, it claimed.

Saddam Hussein throws down the gauntlet by making the job of the UN arms inspectors next to impossible. North Korea does the opposite, starting a construction of underground complexes, with ancillary facilities for exploding triggers for nuclear weapons, in full and seemingly unabashed view of U.S. spy satellites. In a game of "pay to peep" it has told the U.S. if it wants a closer look the fee for site entry is $400 million. With a brinkmanship that makes Saddam look a model of rectitude North Korea, finding Washington increasingly uncooperative, has threatened "to wipe America from this planet for good".

There are some in the Clinton Administration who now argue that their counsel to go to war and neutralise North Korea in 1994 should have been acted upon. It was clear then, they argued, that the country at some point would be prepared to play the nuclear card it was developing, either as back up for a ground invasion of the South to deter a retaliatory attack on the North, or to deter U.S. supportive efforts by threatening an attack on a U.S. base in Japan. But when Clinton was told that a conflict would cost 52,000 American military casualties and 499,000 South Korean, together with a very large number of civilian dead, he decided rightly that negociation, however troubled and tortuous, was his only viable course.

What, perhaps, Mr Clinton had not counted on was the "pig in the middle" position he'd find himself five years later with the Congressional Republicans on one side and the Pyongyang regime on the other, both actively playing to each other's sensitive points. All along the Republicans have made it difficult for the Clinton Administration to honour part of the deal it eventually made in 1994--providing fuel oil for North Korea and lifting economic sanctions on the country in return for North Korea renouncing its nuclear weapons program. Angry, isolated, rigid and paranoid, Pyongyang has seized on this as a reason or an excuse to start digging these provocative underground sites. All this does is make the Republicans even more intransigent, further restricting the delivery of fuel oil and making the day when sanctions will be lifted even more distant.

For now, the other part of the bargain, indeed the major ingredient of it, continues--the building, by South Korea, with some financial aid from Japan and a so far unrealized amount from the U.S., of two light water nuclear reactors for the safe production of domestic electricity in the North, (which unlike older models cannot be adapted to produce weapons-grade plutonium). But in this game of poker, even that is threatened. After the August rocket test across Japan there were many voices raised inside Japan arguing to abrogate the deal; the government responded by suspending its contribution for a couple of months. Inside South Korea, likewise, the policy of rapprochment with the North set in motion by the relatively new president Kim Dae Jung has come under severe attack.

Clinton is on the horn of a dilemma far sharper than 1994, and far more potentially dangerous than exists with Iraq. If he misjudges the calls he now has to make he could end up driving America into war with North Korea, one that many experts say could involve on the North Korean side both chemical and nuclear weapons and the loss of millions of lives. The pressures on the U.S. to retaliate with at least tactical nuclear weapons would be formidable. Secretary of State James Baker, it should not be forgotten, made it all but plain to Iraq just before the Gulf War that the use of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq would be met in kind.

There is no question that this U.S. Administration could ever persuade Congress to part with the $400 million "peep fee" which, anyway, would only pay for one visit, not the many necessary to keep a regular eye on developments. Diplomats are saying it could perhaps be fudged, by helping North Korea with more humanitarian relief, rather than handing over hard cash. But even this could not happen if Pyongyang insists on ratcheting up the decibels.

For Clinton, his personal hope must be to finesse the crisis until he is out of office. He is not the type who would want to have the use of nuclear weapons on his conscience. For Pyongyang too, there must be a desire to feel its way slowly. It needs time, some four to five years, before it could complete a nuclear tipped missile program. And it cannot be sure that it won't miscalculate and push America--even the Clinton Administration--that one bit too much.

Thus, like a slow-motion film the actors walk towards the abyss. Or don't they? Last time it was ex-President Jimmy Carter who came to the rescue and in face to face meetings with Kim Il Sung secured the basis for the 1994 agreement. This time such a last minute agreement may be even more elusive. This is the moment when Washington, Seoul and Tokyo need to steel their nerves and refuse to let events derail them from the present pursuit of detente, even though this will mean for all a tough fight with domestic opponents. The other option of confrontation and let the chips fall where they may is simply neither feasible nor acceptable.


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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