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North Korea's Light in the Tunnel



Aug 4, 1999

LONDON- Although you would not know it from Madeleine Albright, the North Korean rocket you can see coming towards you could be a light at the end of the tunnel! The North Koreans are at it again but, each time, fearing the worst, the U.S. and Japan get into a serious panic. They have convinced themselves of a mighty calamity. The U.S. , Japan and South Korea have now threatened a total embargo of the renegade outlaw country if it dare test-fire its new inter-continental ballistic missile. But it should not be a cause for fear, rather the excuse for some highly creative diplomacy.

First, there was the row in 1994 over the plutonium-rich cooling rods unloaded from North Korea's main nuclear reactor. Washington convinced itself that North Korea was on a fast-track to building an armoury of nuclear weapons. President Bill Clinton was heavily leaned on to threaten war with the North. Only an intelligence report that told him he could lose 52,000 American soldiers stayed his hand. Ex-president Jimmy Carter jumped into the breach and in a private meeting with the North's ageing dictator, Kim Il Sung, won a reprieve that gave the Administration time to fashion a compromise.

The essence of the deal was a straightforward trade off, with the North promising not to make use of this source of plutonium and build a stock of nuclear weapons. In return, Japan and South Korea (with a token bit of money from the U.S.) agreed to build two state of the art, non-plutonium producing, light water reactors to provide much of the North's electricity needs far into the future. The U.S. also promised to end its trade boycott and move towards diplomatic recognition.

Since then mini crisis has followed upon mini crisis, all the time stirred by a stand off between the U.S. Congress (which refused to honour the ending of trade sanctions) and North Korea which has found that the only diplomacy that produces results is to rattle its sabres.

In the last twelve months mini crises have been overtaken by a maxi ones. Earlier this year U.S. satellites discovered a big hole in the ground which the intelligence experts said was a site for exploding triggers for nuclear weapons. North Korea suggested that for a sizeable fee they would allow the U.S. to look it over. After much haggling Washington paid up, albeit more in food relief for the near to starving country than cash.

This had come hard on the heels of last August when the North test-flew a new medium range rocket. It claimed it was only trying to launch a satellite. The truth of that, much debated at the time, is clouded in obscurity. The trajectory, however, took the rocket over Japan, provoking immense nervousness, amplified in Washington, about the North's military intentions. The row subsided, partly because it was possible that North Korea was doing no more than launching a communications satellite; partly because the matter got subsumed in the matter of the "hole".

But now the planned launch of the newer and longer range rocket has breathed fire into the dying embers of the old rows. Once again North Korea is branded as a rogue nation out to threaten the West. This rocket, it is said, could reach Alaska or Hawaii.

U.S. Congressional opinion, long nervous about the North's intentions, is threatening a total embargo. The White House has followed suit and lined up Japan and South Korea behind its tough stance.

The dramatic shift in policy could turn out to be enormously counterproductive. After all North Korea, crazy and malevolent though it may be, offers little real threat. It's a tiny country of 24 million people, with an insignificant national income and a hungry populace. It does have a cadre of talented scientists who, with Chinese help, have made formidable progress in rocketry. It is doubtful, however, that Chinese aid would extend to the ultra sophisticated business of attaching workable warheads of mass destruction, even if North Korea had them (and miniturised them), which it probably doesn't.

These are rockets, at worst, built to carry only ordinary high explosive. No different on impact from the missiles that hit Yugoslavia in the recent war, enough to take out a bridge or- in the case of the Chinese embassy- a largish building. But not enough, as General Wesley Clark, the Nato Supreme Commander, has observed, " to inhibit courting couples enjoying moonlit walks".Being against rockets today is rather like being against mobile phones. What else do you expect in 1999?

In all likelihood, this planned launch is just another attempt by the beleaguered regime in North Korea to bludgeon the West into paying it another bribe. The blackmailer, once successful, always returns for more.

In 1994 Washington decided bribery was better than war. Why should it change track now? To impose a full boycott would mean refusing to finish building the light water reactors. That would free the North from its promise not to use its source of plutonium to build nuclear weapons.

Until now North Korea has broken no promises, nor broken any solemn international agreements on the deployment of missiles. (A few years ago the U.S. missed a singular opportunity to forestall such developments when it decided not to push for a world treaty that would limit the deployment of new rockets.)

Call North Korea's latest plans blackmail- no less, but no more than this. But if paying it off ensures the peace for long enough for more benign influences to begin to work and ameliorate the North's hard regime it will have been worth every penny.

The crisis should be exploited for an historic compromise: one that will give the North what it obviously craves for, American recognition and easy trade and investment. In return the North should make a public commitment that it has no hostile intentions on any country. That would be a light in the sky.


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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