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U.S.: Washington Seeks Support For Containment Strategy Toward North Korea

  • Charles Recknagel

As the crisis over North Korea's nuclear program continues, U.S. officials are saying they will stress a policy of containment rather than military confrontation toward Pyongyang. But the success of any new U.S. efforts to isolate Pyongyang would depend largely on the cooperation of North Korea's regional neighbors, Russia and China, which so far have shown little enthusiasm for the strategy. RFE/RL looks at how differently Washington, Moscow, and Beijing view North Korea and the difficulties that poses for the new U.S. approach.

Prague, 30 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- After weeks of a sense of spiraling crisis, Washington is moving to de-escalate tensions over North Korea's nuclear program by stressing it favors diplomatic, not military, options.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made that point several times over the weekend as he appeared on U.S. television news shows.

Speaking on one U.S. network yesterday, Powell said Washington had no plans for a preemptive strike against North Korea over its plans to reactivate a nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. "We are not planning a preemptive strike," Powell said. "The United States has a full range of capabilities: political, economic, diplomatic, and, yes, military. But we are not trying to create a crisis atmosphere at this point by threatening North Korea," Powell said.

The U.S. secretary of state said specifically that Washington would not strike North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex, which is 90 kilometers north of Pyongyang, because the attack could contaminate the area with radiation. He said, "It's now a functioning facility, so it would be a dirty hit [would release radiation] if we were to go after it."

Powell said that, instead, Washington would give time for nonmilitary options to work. "We are monitoring [the crisis] carefully...we have months to watch this unfold and see what happens," Powell said.

Other U.S. officials have said privately that Washington will pursue a policy of "tailored containment," which could include placing economic pressure on Pyongyang and preventing North Korea from exporting missiles -- its main foreign-currency earner.

Powell did not elaborate on any economic steps but said that, "We have the right to intercept and take whatever action we believe appropriate in the circumstances." A NATO naval patrol earlier this month intercepted a ship carrying North Korean Scud missiles but later released it after the Yemeni government claimed the missiles and demanded their delivery.

But as Washington stresses that it favors applying diplomatic and economic leverage against Pyongyang to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis, its main challenge may be gaining the necessary support for the policy from Pyongyang's key neighbors.

The two biggest regional powers, Russia and China, have yet to signal that they feel much urgency over North Korea's plans to reactivate the Yongbyon nuclear complex. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, has warned that once Pyongyang begins reprocessing nuclear fuel into plutonium, it could produce five or six nuclear weapons by early summer. This is in addition to two nuclear weapons the CIA believes Pyongyang already possesses.

Moscow has said North Korea has neither the money nor the technology to build nuclear weapons. It also has warned that taking any punitive steps against North Korea will only exacerbate the country's already deep economic crisis and risk destabilizing it and the Korean peninsula.

Russia's atomic-energy minister, Aleksandr Rumyantsev, told reporters recently that, "North Korea does not have the capacity to put together nuclear weapons, [because] a developed industry is needed for that." Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov said that, "You cannot achieve anything through accusations, pressure, or tight demands, not to mention threats."

Russia has important trading interests with North Korea, which makes it reluctant to join in applying any new economic pressure against Pyongyang. Moscow is looking to develop a rail link through North Korea to South Korea in hopes of making the Trans-Siberian Railroad a major export route from Seoul to the West.

China has said little publicly about the crisis. But Western diplomats have told reporters privately the United States is making little progress persuading Beijing to use its influence with Pyongyang to halt its plans to restart the reactor. Beijing's official "China Daily" newspaper last week criticized U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for saying the United States is capable of taking military action against Pyongyang if necessary, calling his remarks, "hawkish and dangerous."

Beijing, whose communist government shares fraternal links with Pyongyang dating back to the Korean War of the early 1950s, is North Korea's largest trading partner.

Because both Russia and China border North Korea, any U.S.-led efforts to punish Pyongyang economically over its nuclear program would have little effect without the two states' cooperation. U.S. officials have said privately they will try to develop a unified strategy for dealing with Pyongyang through the United Nations beginning next month but have given no details of what that strategy would entail.

In arguing for a unified strategy, Washington is likely to stress that Pyongyang's decision this month to expel UN nuclear inspectors puts it in breach of its international obligations and requires the UN to respond.

That argument has gained ground over recent days as the UN's nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Pyongyang had rejected its appeals for the inspectors to remain in the country. The inspectors are due to leave North Korea for Beijing tomorrow.

IAEA Director-General Mohammad el-Baradei this weekend called North Korea "a country in defiance of its international obligations."

A spokeswoman for the IAEA, Melissa Fleming, said last week that Pyongyang's expulsion of the inspectors, plus its earlier decision to remove IAEA cameras from Yongbyon, effectively ends efforts to monitor the country's nuclear program. "Together with the loss of the cameras and seals, the departure of our inspectors would practically constitute an end to our ability to monitor North Korea's nuclear program or, for that matter, to assess its nature. Additionally, Dr. el-Baradei said that this would be one further step away from diffusing this crisis," Fleming said.

North Korea told the IAEA that its inspectors must leave due to the breakdown of a 1994 agreement under which Pyongyang received fuel oil from a U.S.-led consortium of countries in exchange for deactivating its nuclear facility. The agreement fell apart when Washington and its allies cut off the oil deliveries in response to North Korea's saying in October it continues to have a covert nuclear program.

Pyongyang has said it now needs to restart its nuclear program for energy purposes, but UN and U.S. officials say the energy the plant can generate is minimal.

North Korea, which has been isolated since the end of the Cold War, has suffered economic collapse and food shortages that have killed 2 million people and left its population dependent on foreign food aid.

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