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North Korea: Experts Debate U.S. Strategy

  • Jeffrey Donovan

U.S. policy toward North Korea is coming under the spotlight after Pyongyang sent jets to intercept an unarmed U.S. surveillance plane in international skies over the Sea of Japan (East Sea).

Washington, 5 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States, focused on a possible war with Iraq, looks set to wait out a nuclear crisis with North Korea despite rising tensions between the two countries.

With more than 200,000 U.S. troops in or nearing the Persian Gulf region for a possible strike on Iraq, Washington has responded with relative calm to a series of recent incidents on or near the Korean peninsula.

Last week, North Korea tested a missile while U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Seoul for the inauguration of new South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun.

And on 2 March, four North Korean MiG fighter jets intercepted an American reconnaissance aircraft over the Sea of Japan (East Sea). It was the first such public confrontation since 1969, when Pyongyang shot down a U.S. surveillance plane, killing 31 people on board.

The U.S. called the interception a "reckless act" and said it would lodge a formal protest. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: "We are, first of all, in very close consultation with South Korea and Japan about the incident and considering with them our response. We do intend to protest this kind of reckless behavior by North Korea that can only lead to further international isolation of North Korea. And we repeat our call on North Korea to avoid provocative and escalatory behavior."

Relations between the U.S. and North Korea have soured badly in the past year. U.S. President George W. Bush has labeled the country part of the "axis of evil" of states that sponsor terrorism. North Korea has since renounced a bilateral agreement with the U.S. not to produce nuclear materials that could be used in weapons. It has also abandoned the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

The U.S. says it believes it can solve the issue through diplomatic pressure on North Korea in concert with four regional powers: China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan. Analysts say the U.S. hopes to turn Pyongyang's acts of provocation against itself by getting the four to follow the U.S. lead and isolate North Korea diplomatically and economically.

Boucher hinted at this approach on 4 March, saying that for every escalatory step, Pyongyang will be further isolated: "It loses out with every one of these steps. All the prospects and benefits it had of better relations with people in the world are harmed by every one of these steps. And at some point North Korea has to get the message that it's not going to get anything for taking further steps."

The end result, apparently, would be that North Korea eventually comes forward to disarm and rejoin the international community, or implodes as did the Eastern European Soviet satellites under intense American pressure.

But the U.S. plan is not without its critics. Peter Hayes is executive director of the Nautilus Institute, a policy center focused on Asia and based in Berkeley, California. He says the U.S. focus on putting multilateral pressure on North Korea is misplaced.

Hayes tells RFE/RL that North Korea is desperate for economic help and a security relationship with Washington, which it perceives as posing a direct threat to its survival. In this context, Hayes says insisting on only multilateral talks makes no sense since America holds the keys both to opening the doors of the world financial institutions and to a new security deal with Pyongyang.

"At the end of the day, there is one place that the North Koreans can have this discussion with," Hayes said. "It isn't at the [United Nations] Security Council, it isn't in Beijing or Moscow or even Seoul. It's actually directly between Pyongyang and Washington. These are ultimately the key adversaries, they're the partners in conflict and they have to sort out some kind of resolution or come to blows."

Raymond Tanter, a member of former President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council, disagrees. Tanter, author of a book called "Rogue Regimes," says direct talks are not the answer.

"I don't think direct talks will slow down the North Korean [nuclear] march. I think North Korea will simply use the direct talks to rally its citizenry and rally South Korea around the North Korean agenda."

Therefore, Tanter says, only multilateral pressure from the U.S. and the regional powers can bring North Korea to change its course.

Tanter says if America's goal of collective regional pressure on Pyongyang fails, then it is possible to consider military action, even if that would put at risk potentially millions of people on the Korean peninsula and Japan.

"If North Korea chooses to become the 'Walmart' or 'Fedex' (in other words, a main supplier of nuclear missile technology to terrorists and rogue states), I think the Bush administration will act militarily against North Korea."

In the latest development, Pentagon officials said on 4 March that the U.S. is considering whether to send fighter jet escorts with reconnaissance planes in international air space near North Korea following the interception of an American spy plane by North Korean jets.

The Pentagon is also sending more military forces, including B-52 bombers, to northeast Asia to bolster its defense posture and as a deterrent.

The Pentagon has been reluctant in the past to arm or escort any such surveillance flights, which military officials say operate legally inside international air space.

Some say that escorting the flights undercuts the U.S. assertion that the flights are not military threats. Others say fighter jet escorts could further provoke North Korea.