Motivation Behind North Korea's Nuclear Confession
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
It has been a confusing week in the press ever since North Korea admitted to having continued its nuclear weapons program when pressed on the issue by the U.S. The confusion revolved around two key questions: What was the motivation behind North Korea's confession and why is the U.S. reacting with such calm to the news (relative to Iraq)?
The answers provided by the international media to the first question are as follows. Quoting a senior South Korean official, James Brooke's article in the New York Times indicated that Kim Jong Il did so "as a sign that North Korea is willing to resolve this problem through dialogue" (18 October). Howard W. French stressed that, "decisions in North Korea are driven by an impulse for survival" and went on to highlight that Kim Jong Il was "facing a moment of unusual vulnerability". The recent trend towards 'diplomacy by confession', according to French, was ultimately aimed at getting the Bush administration more interested in engagement (NYT, 21 October). However, there were those such as Victor D. Cha of Georgetown University (quoted in French) who dismissed any underlying motive by stating that, "this was a case where Washington simply had the goods on them and Pyongyang just didn't see any other way out".
In reference to the second question an interesting article appeared in the NYT on 18 October entitled "Weighing 'Deterrence' vs 'Aggression'". This article, written by Steven Weisman explained the difference in approach to North Korea as a revelation of Washington's desire not to let North Korea derail Bush's plans to confront Saddam. Weisman quoted a former US diplomat with over 30 years experience in dealing with the North as stating that, "North Korea is the worst kind of totalitarian regime, and their willingness to cheat is unquestioned. But they do not pose an imminent threat to regional stability". He also outlined that "military experts say that for all its erratic conduct, North Korea is not planning to blackmail or coerce neighboring countries. The purpose of North Korea's nuclear program is analogous to that of Pakistan's. Just as Pakistan has moved to acquire such weapons to counter the threat presented by India … North Korea has acquired arms to protect itself from being overrun by South Korea". In addition to this, Weisman indicated that the U.S. government seems to think that diplomacy may still work in the North because of the country's desperate state of poverty and starvation.
Judging from recent US government statements on the issue, the U.S. seems to have chosen a more careful approach to North Korea. President Bush has issued his support to continued negotiations between Japan and North Korea. Furthermore, Secretary of State Colin Powell has declared that the USG intends to move deliberately and with patience in order "not to create a crisis in the region". The ultimate objective of course is to dismantle North Korea's nuclear program (Steve Holland, Reuters, 26 October).
While the Bush administration's decision to try and resolve the conflict in North East Asia in a pacific manner is welcome, the distinction between a peaceful approach to North Korea and U.S. insistence on using military force against Iraq is cause for concern. Not only because of the fact that a military attack on Iraq would ignore the majority opinion and serve to radicalize millions more against the U.S. and the West, but also because the recently announced peaceful approach to North Korea will likely be interpreted by countries such as Iraq as rewarding nuclear proliferation.
In my mind, there is no doubt that Kim Jong Il decided to divulge his country's nuclear activities because as a 'quasi' nuclear power North Korea would command more prestige and power in international politics and therefore demand a more cautious approach. Once a country becomes nuclear the strategic equation changes.
The negotiations between Japan and North Korea that are set to begin in Malaysia tomorrow have been made all the more critical now that North Korea has admitted to having continued its nuclear weapons program and is suspected of having one or two nuclear bombs. Japan will find it difficult to convince Kim Jong Il to give up nukes in exchange for economic aid. The simple reason being that the system we live in is one that rewards military prowess above all. Nuclear powers are given special treatment and this is to a large part what motivates the drive towards nuclear weapons by leaders such as Saddam Hussein. If he possessed nuclear weapons, the U.S. response to his regime would no doubt be different then what is being proposed. In fact, he would have a chance at survival as is being witnessed in North Korea. No matter how dictatorial its leaders or how poor and hungry its people, once a country possesses nuclear capability it becomes a regional, if not a world power.
What is needed is an absolute crack down on the illicit trade of nuclear related materials, such as what has been taking place between Pakistan and North Korea ever since 1997 (see David E. Sanger and James Dao, "U.S. Says Pakistan Gave Technology to North Korea", NYT, 18 October). Instead of concentrating on military bombardment and coercion to thwart all attempts by dangerous leaders such as Saddam Hussein to gain a nuclear arsenal we should focus on eliminating their ability and desire to acquire such technology and material by shutting down the transaction routes. We have to develop tighter control measures and we have to stop rewarding nuclear powers with unparalleled respect and prestige.
Contrary to what President Bush and Colin Powell claim, there is a crisis in North East Asia. As the former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori stated, "there is a very dangerous country in the neighborhood that has conducted savage acts such as abductions and is aiming its nuclear missiles right at Japan" (James Brooke, NYT, 21 October). It is time to focus on dismantling North Korea's nuclear program and making it impossible for any other nation to acquire such capability in the future. If Japan, the U.S. and the rest of the world fail to remove the nuclear threat from North Korea there is a certain danger that a nuclear arms race will develop in North East Asia.
- James Brooke, "Jolted by North Korea, Japan grows angrier", The New York Times, 21 October 2002
- James Brooke, "Japan hopes to use aid to press North Korea to end A-bomb plan", The New York Times, 19 October 2002
- James Brooke, "North Korea's revelation could derail normalization, its neighbors say", The New York Times, 18 October 2002
- David E. Sanger and James Dao, "US Says Pakistan Gave Technology to North Korea", The New York Times, 18 October 2002
- Steven Weisman, "Weighing 'deterrence' vs 'aggression'", The New York Times, 18 October 2002
- Howard W. French, "North Korea's confession: Why?", The New York Times, 21 October 2002
- Ron Fournier, "US, Japan, S. Korea demand that North Korea abandon nuclear weapons program in 'prompt and verifiable manner'", The Associated Press, 26 October 2002
- Steve Holland, "US, Japan, S. Korea Press N. Korea on Nuclear Arms", Reuters, 26 October 2002