For the past year relations between North Korea and the outside world have slowly deteriorated. In March, after refusing to permit the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect two nuclear waste sites at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, North Korea gave the required 90 days' notice that it would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It suspended this threat only on the 89th day. Then, in August, Pyongyang restricted IAEA officials from performing even routine inspections of declared nuclear facilities.
The director-general of the IAEA, Hans Blix, told the United Nations General Assembly on 1 November that his agency is losing its ability to verify that North Korea is not diverting material for nuclear weapons. Pyongyang had made a last-minute offer to the agency to allow it to come in and replace the film and batteries in the surveillance cameras and check security seals, but the agency declined, stating that it does not conduct its inspections 'a la carte'.
This is where the situation currently rests. US intelligence estimates continue to state that Pyongyang may have anywhere from nought to four nuclear bombs, a vagueness that reflects the secrecy of North Korean society. A Pentagon official admitted last week that North Korea is 'not building nuclear bombs right now'.
The risk is that after highly publicised foreign policy failures in Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti, the Clinton administration will want to 'do something' in North Korea to mollify its many domestic critics. Betraying a sensitivity to these critics, Les Aspin, the Secretary of Defence, remarked last week that the US must not 'look weak' on this issue.
The administration has been criticised both for making too many concessions to North Korea and for not making enough. All observers agree that the North is trying to manipulate the nuclear issue to extract the maximum amount of economic and diplomatic benefits from the West, especially the US, South Korea and Japan. Where they disagree is on how America should react to this nuclear 'blackmail'.
Hard-line critics have objected to the idea of Washington 'rewarding' Pyongyang for honouring existing international obligations on nuclear inspections; they claim that the administration has taken an all 'carrots' and no 'sticks' approach. They opposed American participation in face-to-face negotiations with the North Koreans in June and July, the American offer to assist the North with its nuclear energy development, and the possible suspension of the annual South Korean-US military training exercises.
To these critics, the administration's unprincipled approach only encourages North Korea to continue playing its nuclear card in the hopes that Washington will sweeten the pot. Acquiescence to the North's strategy, they argue, will encourage other countries, such as Ukraine, to engage in similar brinkmanship.
Critics on the other side have claimed that the Clinton administration has not offered North Korea sufficient incentives. They assert that Pyongyang is afraid that Washington will 'shift the goalposts' if it co-operates on the nuclear issue. In other words, once the North agrees to comprehensive nuclear inspections, American promises of economic assistance and diplomatic recognition will be replaced by demands for North Korean restraint in other areas, such as ballistic missile sales. Instead, these critics favour comprehensive discussions with North Korea in which all these issues can be negotiated at one time.
The Clinton administration has left itself open to much of this criticism by its handling of the affair during the past nine months. After North Korea's announcement in mid-March that it would leave the NPT, a strong statement of continued US support for South Korea and the newly installed government of Kim Young Sam would have sent a clear message to the North; yet nothing was said. Nor was there any reinforcement of US troops in the South, when even a symbolic gesture would have reassured both a jittery South Korea and Japan.
Instead, Mr Clinton remained silent for four months, until he declared during a July visit to the demilitarised zone separating North and South Korea that a North Korean attack on the South would result in the North's annihilation.
The administration has had no permanent inter-agency working group on the matter. US negotiators meeting with North Korean officials in New York and Geneva earlier this year did not have the usual 'backstopping committee' to support the delegation; the result was that they received conflicting instructions from the State Department, the National Security Council and the Pentagon.
Earlier this month, the bungling continued when a Pentagon official travelling with Mr Aspin on a visit to South Korea informed reporters that the North was reinforcing its troops near the South Korean border. These comments were (incorrectly) interpreted by some news organisations as indicating an imminent military conflict on the peninsula. For his part, Mr Aspin's public musings during the trip on the efficacy of international economic sanctions may have persuaded Pyongyang that before it permits international inspections, Washington can be pressured to agree to further concessions.
Further complicating the situation is that the conventional threat from North Korea, the danger of nuclear proliferation, a transition from 'Great Leader' Kim Il Sung to his son, 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong Il, and the North's economic collapse are all coalescing at the same time. In the face of all this, few good policy options are available.
The resulting sense of frustration has prompted calls - though not (yet) from anyone in the administration - for a pre-emptive military strike on the Yongbyon facilities. A military strike makes no sense. If North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons (or even the plutonium to build them), it is highly unlikely they are all stored at Yongbyon. Moreover, an attack on the North would trigger a second Korean war, and might this time invite a nuclear response from Pyongyang. Any military action would be strongly opposed by Japan and South Korea, without whose support the US could not wage such a war.
A more realistic option under consideration in Washington is whether to set a hard deadline for North Korea to allow IAEA inspections. If Pyongyang refuses, the US will go to the UN Security Council and request economic sanctions.
The Clinton administration is reluctant to go to the Security Council just yet. First, it is uncertain whether such a request would succeed. The key country here is China, which has urged the US privately to continue seeking a diplomatic solution. Even if China did not exercise its veto, the US could not guarantee that Peking would enforce the sanctions. And even if an embargo were enforced, it is unclear whether this would compel the North Korean regime to alter its nuclear policy.
Further, a potential consequence of economic sanctions is that an increasingly desperate and economically isolated North Korea would peddle its nuclear technology abroad to the highest bidder. Pyongyang has so far refrained from this, but it already has a ready network of customers for its ballistic missile technology, especially in the Middle East; these countries would undoubtedly be eager to obtain nuclear weapons technology.
Finally, a more serious concern is that economic sanctions would be seen by North Korea as an act of war. The Defence Department and some members of the State Department believe that sanctions could impel the North into launching a military attack on the South.
In this uncertain environment, the best approach for the United States is to maintain a patient, steady, and firm course. President Clinton should not make North Korea a 'test case' of his commitment to nonproliferation or an opportunity to prove his toughness. He must avoid lurching from inattention to overheated rhetoric, and instead chart a steady course in order to reassure the public and America's allies that US policy is being directed by a mature and confident leadership. Finally, he must understand that, no matter what he does, resolution of this issue will ultimately be decided in Pyongyang, not Washington or Seoul.
The writer is Guest Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, where he is writing a book on nuclear proliferation after the Cold War.
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