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Commentary (December 15, 2006)

Giving Pyongyang the Bomb

Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)

The report by the Iraq Study Group to US President George W. Bush last week focused only on the Middle East. But its observations on the Bush administration's policy in Iraq could also be applied to its approach towards North Korea.

When Mr Bush gave his State of the Union address in January 2002, he referred to an "axis of evil" comprising Iran, Iraq and North Korea. His refusal to talk to some Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran and Syria, was reflected in his refusal to deal directly with the North Korean government of Kim Jong-il.

America's failure in Iraq has attracted worldwide attention because of the violence wracking the country. But the failure of its North Korean policy resulted directly in Pyongyang's possession of nuclear weapons.

Washington's refusal to deal directly with Pyongyang led to pressure on Beijing to sponsor three-party talks - involving the United States, China and North Korea - and later six-party talks, which also took in Japan, South Korea and Russia.

Moreover, the Bush administration allowed its distaste for the Clinton administration to colour its foreign policy. Mr Bush pronounced China not a strategic partner but a strategic competitor, and disavowed the Agreed Framework with North Korea, reached in 1994.

The Agreed Framework provided for the shutdown of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear reactor and halted the construction of two larger nuclear power plants.

In return, Pyongyang was to receive heavy oil for heating to compensate for lost electricity. Two light-water reactors costing US$4 billion were to be provided to North Korea by 2003.

Under the agreement, North Korea was required to resume its membership in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor its facilities. Spent fuel that could have been reprocessed to create plutonium for nuclear weapons was put under IAEA controls.

However, the agreement broke down following Bush administration charges in 2002 that North Korea had secretly embarked on another programme to manufacture nuclear weapons by using highly enriched uranium.

North Korea publicly denied the charge but, even if it were true, it showed that the terms of the Agreed Framework had effectively prevented the North Koreans from developing a plutonium bomb - which they had been doing before 1994.

It would probably have taken North Korea considerably longer to make a bomb using highly enriched uranium than to continue its work on a plutonium bomb.

The Bush administration ended oil deliveries in December 2002. In December 2003, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation, a consortium responsible for implementing the energy-related parts of the Agreed Framework, suspended work on the light-water reactor project.

Not unnaturally, North Korea responded to these developments by ending the freeze on the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, expelling IAEA inspectors, announcing its withdrawal from the NPT - and resuming work on its plutonium programme.

On February 10 last year, North Korea declared that it had manufactured nuclear weapons for self-defence. It could have said, accurately, "courtesy of the United States of America".

The small nuclear device that the North Koreans detonated in October was made with plutonium, not uranium. They were able to manufacture it because the Bush administration had scrapped the Agreed Framework, thus opening the door for North Korea to openly work on its nuclear weapons programme - work that had been suspended since 1994.

If the Agreed Framework had been left in place while the United States negotiated with the North over an apparent breach of the accord, Pyongyang would probably not be in a position now to test a nuclear bomb. The world - and Asia in particular - would be a safer place.

North Korea's bomb is a present from the Bush administration.

(Originally appeared in the December 14, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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