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North Korea: Questions Arise After Pyongyang Declares It Has Nuclear Weapons

  • Jeremy Bransten

North Korea today issued an unusually detailed official statement that all but confirms that it has nuclear weapons and intends to deploy them, due to what it said is a growing threat from the United States. Pyongyang blamed the failure of recent three-way talks on U.S. intransigence and accused the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush of deliberately escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Prague, 30 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the continuing diplomatic dance between Washington and Pyongyang, North Korea today tiptoed as close as it could to officially declaring possession of nuclear weapons -- without actually saying the "N" word.

North Korea's state-run news agency carried a Foreign Ministry statement that said, despite Pyongyang's long-standing efforts to "denuclearize the Korean nation," Washington's policies had forced Pyongyang to arm itself with what it termed a "necessary deterrent force" to protect itself from a potential U.S. pre-emptive attack.

As evidence, the statement specifically cited Washington's inclusion of North Korea in its "axis of evil" and the U.S. administration's revision of its nuclear posture in 2002. It went on to say that Washington has no right to accuse Pyongyang of "threats" or "blackmail" on the nuclear issue, arguing that North Korea is only acting in self-defense, with the aim of countering what it sees as a threat from the United States, itself the world's leading nuclear power.

A North Korean newscaster later read the statement on national television: "The reality requires the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] to deter the escalating U.S. moves to stifle the DPRK with physical force, compels it to opt for possessing a necessary deterrent force and being able to put it into practice. The U.S. was the first to have access to nuclear weapons and is the world's biggest possessor of weapons of mass destruction."

Today's public declaration comes as apparent confirmation of earlier reports that North Korea admitted to having nuclear weapons during three-way talks in Beijing last week with China and the United States.

Two questions now come to mind. Might Pyongyang -- despite its track record of erratic behavior and histrionics -- have a point? And what comes next, now that Pyongyang has seemingly claimed membership in the nuclear club?

Aidan Foster-Carter, at Britain's University of Leeds, is a leading expert on North Korea. While he does not argue that North Korea is justified in having developed nuclear weapons -- if this is indeed what has happened -- he does say that U.S. policy over the past two years, given the North Korean psychology, has undoubtedly driven Pyongyang toward acquiring a nuclear capability.

One watershed moment was the U.S. administration's publishing of its Nuclear Posture Review early last year, which suggested that Washington might consider the use of nuclear weapons in a first strike. In that same Nuclear Posture Review, the United States mentioned North Korea, among other nations, as a source of what it called "unexpected contingencies."

Another watershed moment was North Korea's inclusion in Washington's "axis of evil," along with Iraq and Iran. Yet another was the war in Iraq, which put into practice the new U.S. doctrine of "anticipatory self-defense" -- or "pre-emptive war," as other countries have called it.

Foster-Carter told RFE/RL it all adds up to a good rationale -- in Pyongyang's eyes, at least -- for developing nukes.

"From the admittedly warped and self-defeating way that the North Koreans look at the world in any case -- but then you'd expect the Americans to know that and deal with it -- the way the U.S. has reacted, both towards them in particular and in general -- [i.e. the] 'axis of evil,' Iraq, the pre-emption doctrine -- it's only too predictable that they would have decided, as they seem to have done, that the only thing that will preserve [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-il from the fate of Saddam Hussein is to have a bomb as a deterrent," Foster-Carter said.

Despite its largely hostile content, Pyongyang's statement does appear to indicate a desire for negotiations. South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun, whose government has just ended its own round of talks with North Korea in Pyongyang, said in Seoul today he believes North Korea's statement is -- in his words -- "a card they have put down on the table" for bargaining purposes.

The response from Washington has been that it remains unwilling to bargain back. "What the [U.S.] President [Bush] has said is that we will not reward North Korea for bad behavior, that what we seek is North Korea's irrevocable and verifiable dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program, and that we will not provide them with inducements for doing what they always said they were going to do anyway," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday.

But according to Foster-Carter, that kind of thinking, coupled with U.S. actions over the past two years, has painted both sides into a corner. The U.S. administration, he said, needs to work out a new Korea policy -- one that relies on diplomacy and above all, one that reflects a consensus presently lacking among senior U.S. officials, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"If the Bush administration would embrace one policy or the other, we would know where we are, but the Powell-Rumsfeld divide -- which has been there on this issue, as on others all along -- is patently still there. I think they're going to have to do some very hard thinking in Washington," Foster-Carter said.

"South Korea's new president, Roh Moo-hyun, is about to make his first visit [to Washington] in mid-May, and that could be a focus for it. Basically, they've got to consider what they want. The military option ought to be unthinkable. The North Koreans could flatten Seoul before going down themselves, so half a century of U.S.-backed development in the South, never mind maybe hundreds of thousands of lives, [would be] lost. The game is not worth the candle. The cure is not worth the disease," Foster-Carter added.

That is not to say, according to Foster-Carter, that working out a deal will be easy -- especially since any agreement that involves verification of North Korean compliance would be extremely hard to guarantee.

"Even if both sides decide to go down the path of a deal, and we're not even there yet, then getting there -- as we saw, there's a lot of deja vu in all of this -- getting there will be incredibly difficult. The U.S. will not insist, and rightly I think, on anything less than the complete and verified nuclear disarmament of North Korea. And I don't know how you would get that. North Korea, which has only ever allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency to play a terribly limited role -- sort of sitting and watching the paint dry, basically, rather than anything remotely intrusive -- would have to put up with much more intrusion. Plus, North Koreans [are] renowned tunnelers -- there must be thousands of caves all over the country where they could hide bits of this and bits of that. So, realistically, whether we would ever know if they were completely clean is very hard to see. It would be a very, very difficult route to actually go down," Foster-Carter said.

But given the lack of options, it is a route Washington will likely find itself embarking on sooner rather than later.