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North Korea: No Easy Options For Resolving Nuclear Standoff

Faced with an escalating game of nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea, the world seems unsure how to respond. China, Russia, and the United States each have a degree of leverage they can use against Pyongyang but will this be enough to deflate tensions? RFE/RL interviews three experts, who examine the options.

Prague, 7 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- First the good news. The three countries with the greatest influence on North Korea -- China, Russia, and the United States -- are all interested in a peaceful and rapid de-escalation of the mounting tensions with Pyongyang. The three countries, unlike in the past, also maintain relations with South Korea.

These factors facilitate communication and should, in theory, allow an easier resolution to the problem than was possible at any time in the past.

The bad news, however, is that domestic political considerations in all three countries and economic factors limit their scope for action. At the same time, North Korea appears more desperate and willing to push its game of nuclear brinkmanship to new levels.

The first question is why Pyongyang has opted for this seemingly dangerous course. It first admitted, according to the United States, that it had continued its nuclear research program -- in violation of a 1994 agreement -- and subsequently ordered the restarting of its mothballed atomic reactor, kicking out inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Now Pyongyang has threatened all-out war if the world imposes sanctions against it.

Over the longer term, experts agree that Pyongyang's belligerent policy could undo progress made by the isolated state in cultivating its relations with China, Russia, and, of course, South Korea. Over the past three years, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has met both his Chinese and Russian counterparts several times. Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Jiang Zemin both traveled to Pyongyang, voicing their desire for closer ties. At the same time, ties with South Korea have warmed, raising the possibility of opening a rail line stretching from South Korea, through North Korea, and on to Siberia and Europe -- which could have provided Pyongyang with valuable transit fees. All this has now been imperiled by North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Why then, has Pyongyang taken this course?

Robert Ward, a Korea expert at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, suggests two possible rationales. "One is to try and frighten the U.S. into giving it aid, giving it money, because its economic situation is so dire. So-called 'militant mendicancy' has worked very well over the past 10 years. They've threatened and got quite good deals from the West over that time. Another potential reason, which is almost more worrying, is that they genuinely feel that they need security against a possible attack on them by the U.S. Obviously, [given] the U.S.'s hard-line stance on Iraq, and given that North Korea, along with Iran, is in what George W. Bush calls the 'axis of evil,' they are probably quite worried as to whether they're going to be next. So it is possible that they just want these weapons as pure protection."

U.S. President George W. Bush has tried to alleviate that fear by explicitly stating that the United States aims to follow a different policy with North Korea than with Iraq -- sticking to diplomacy with no plans for any invasion. But Washington, according to Ward, is limited in the actions it can pursue.

Having grouped North Korea in his "axis of evil," Bush cannot be seen to accede to North Korean blackmail, either by increasing aid or, as Pyongyang has demanded, signing a nonaggression treaty. The fact that Pyongyang showed no compunction about violating the 1994 treaty it signed with the United States and other concerned states on halting its nuclear program means any future agreement will be immediately suspect.

"The key part of this crisis is that North Korea has shown that it can't be trusted to adhere to international agreements. So, I imagine that the Bush administration will be very reluctant to agree to another international agreement that involves some quid pro quo for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, only for it to be seen to have been violated several years down the line," Ward said.

But going the other way and enforcing a blockade of North Korea, he added, could also be counterproductive. "One of the means by which the U.S. is seeking to contain North Korea -- one that's being considered -- is economic sanctions. But obviously, the concern there is that, should sanctions start to bite, then North Korea will just ramp up its exports of weapons of mass destruction and otherwise. So again, this is a very difficult issue."

Striking Pyongyang militarily is also seen as practically impossible, given the proximity of the South Korean capital, Seoul, to the North Korean border and the likelihood that the United States will soon launch a war against Iraq. Backing the nuclear armament of Japan as a counterweight measure, as prominent conservative U.S. columnist Charles Krauthammer recently proposed, is also seen as unacceptable by most experts and all other governments in Asia. It all adds up to a series of unattractive policy options for Washington.

Would Russia, then, face better odds at resolving the crisis? Until a decade ago, Pyongyang maintained close ties with Moscow and was highly reliant on its support. But, as Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea analyst at Britain's Leeds University, explained, the situation today is far different. Moscow, despite President Vladimir Putin's recent attempts to revive relations, has little of the leverage it once enjoyed with Pyongyang.

"The really key thing that's changed is that until 1990, the then-Soviet Union was absolutely overwhelming in the North Korean economy. Almost everything the North Koreans had, despite their boasts of self-reliance, was Soviet-built, Soviet-aided, and they never paid anything back to the Russians just like they didn't to the West either. In 1991, Moscow pulled the plug in the last days of the Soviet Union, as they did, I believe, also in other states like Vietnam, Mongolia, and Cuba. And the North Korean economy has been in a free-fall ever since. The trade relationship has not recovered and North Korea took its overdraft elsewhere. It took it to the other comrade, China. And China, from that point onwards, has replaced Russia as North Korea's main trade partner."

If China holds the best cards in trying to defuse tensions with North Korea, what course of action would be in China's interest? As Foster-Carter notes, here too, the situation is complicated by the fact that Beijing faces a dilemma. On the one hand, it wants to prevent Pyongyang from becoming a nuclear power and has grown tired of North Korea's antics. But on the other hand, it knows that pushing too hard could lead to the regime's collapse, which Beijing also wants to avoid.

"For China it's really a balance. At the moment, it wants North Korea there in some form. It is a buffer state. If the alternative were some sort of Germany-style collapse and absorption, that might bring U.S. forces currently in South Korea up to China's border, to the banks of the Yalu, and China absolutely doesn't want that. On the other hand, North Korea is just a darned nuisance. This nuclear crisis, obviously, risks creating an arms race in Northeast Asia and North Korea does all sorts of other things. It declared a special economic zone on its border with China, apparently without consulting China and appointed as its first head a Chinese billionaire, Yang Bin, who China was just about to arrest and promptly did do -- which was a real gesture from Beijing that it's getting a bit fed up with North Korea. The question is, how fed up and how soon?"

But Foster-Carter and other analysts say the fact that China is undergoing a transition in leadership complicates matters and could delay any moves from Beijing. Most observers expect Beijing to err on the side of inaction unless it is strongly pressured.

Patrick Koellner, a Korea-watcher at the University of Hamburg's Institute for Asian Affairs, believes that of the three it is Washington that still has the best chance at calming the waters, but the solution he proposes would be controversial.

"What we are looking for is a win-win situation, in the sense that both the United States and North Korea can meet their [respective] needs. What we are looking for is some kind of deal which would, for example, see a verifiable end to the North Korean nuclear program, in exchange for some kind of security guarantee extended by the United States. I would suggest that the best solution we could actually get would be some kind of peace deal between the United States and North Korea because, technically speaking, both countries are still at war. As you remember, at the end of the Korean War in 1953, there was a truce. But we are still awaiting a peace deal between the United States and North Korea."

There is little doubt that government officials in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow wish North Korea had stayed off their radar screens. But as Robert Ward indicated, now that the issue has arisen, inaction is not an option.

"It would be nice to be able to ignore North Korea. But you have to remember that North Korea is very close to Asia's largest economy, Japan, and to [another] one of its largest economies, South Korea, and has tremendous potential, if not to launch full-fledged war -- as I think that's quite unlikely -- to be gently destabilizing. You saw one instance of that in 1998, when the North Koreans shot what the Japanese claim to be a missile over Japan. The North Koreans claim it was a satellite launch that went wrong. That's the sort of low-level destabilizing event from North Korea that means you can't really ignore North Korea within East Asia, which is one of the world's most important economic zones."

And time is running short. The International Atomic Energy Agency says Pyongyang must readmit the agency's inspectors into the country within the next few weeks or the issue will be sent to the United Nations Security Council.