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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:57 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #79: January 14, 2003

Nuclear Proliferation in North Korea: a matter of international security?

John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)


North Korea's decision of 11 January to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its suggestion to resume long-range missile testing has provoked intensified debate in the media on three questions. (1) Which state poses a greater threat to international security in the form of nuclear proliferation, North Korea or Iraq? (2) Does there exist a strong enough commitment to enforce international treaties restricting the spread of nuclear weapons? (3) What is the best way to deal with the threat stemming from North Korea?

As for the first question, there are two dominant arguments. The first insists that North Korea is a greater threat to the international community than is Iraq. The second maintains that Kim Jong Il's regime poses a limited threat while the disarming of Saddam Hussein will have global impact.

Those individuals espousing the initial viewpoint are not limited to those living in the Asian theatre of tension. They include journalists such as Robert Fisk (The Independent), academics such as William C. Potter (director of the Monterey Institute Center for Nonproliferation Studies) and the editors of The Financial Times (UK) and El Pais (Spain). The latter argument is represented primarily by writers in The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune such as William Safire, Bill Keller and David E. Sanger.

On 4 January, Fisk revealed his position by cynically stating that, "I think I'm getting the picture. North Korea breaks all its nuclear agreements with the US, throws out UN inspectors and sets off to make a bomb a year, and President Bush says its 'a diplomatic issue'. Iraq hands over a 12,000 page account of its weapons production and allows UN inspectors to roam all over the country, and after they've found not a jam-jar of dangerous chemicals in 230 raids President Bush announces that Iraq is a threat to America, has not disarmed and may have to be invaded" (The Independent).

William C. Potter started his op-ed article in the International Herald Tribune on 3 January by writing that, "even without restarting its plutonium reprocessing facility, North Korea poses a far more serious nuclear weapons threat than does Iraq". He went on to stress that, "North Korea has never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. It ranks among the largest possessors and producers of chemical weapons. It is also suspected of having produced biological weapons since the early 1980's has a highly developed ballistic missile program and one should be very concerned about its readiness to export nuclear material, and even nuclear weapons, to other countries and terrorist organizations".

The Financial Times editorial of 11/12 January supported this perspective by characterizing North Korea's decision to withdraw from the NPT as behavior threatening to jump over the edge and take others with it. The article went on to state that, "such behavior, coupled with the reasonable presumption that the North Koreans already have or are very close to developing nuclear weapons, is more immediate cause for alarm than Iraq where the nuclear threat is unproven". El Pais reiterated this point in its editorial of 12 January by stating that, "the grave challenge posed by North Korea with her nuclear blackmail should make the US reconsider its priority of an armed conflict in Iraq".

In contrast, columnists in The New York Time's, such as Bill Keller and David E. Sanger, portrayed Kim Jong Il and the threat his country's military posed as an exaggerated one. Keller wrote that, "North Korea is a hermit state ruled by a potbellied, five foot three paranoid Stalinist who likes to watch Daffy Duck cartoons. People are surviving on boiled grass and the little dictator is suspected of having manufactured a couple of nuclear weapons. Creepy" (4 January, NYT). He went on to question that, "if he actually has a nuclear warhead or two, they have not been fully tested, and thus are just a kind of security blanket". A week later, David E. Sanger ridiculed the North Korean regime when commenting on talks taking place between a former negotiator of the Agreed Framework, Bill Richardson, and North Korean diplomats. Sanger stated that, "it is unclear whether Kim Jong Il knows that Mr. Richardson is a Democrat, whose sway at the White House ended two years ago" ("What does North Korea want?" (NYT, 12 January).

William Safire believes that nuclear proliferation in North Korea is a matter of regional security and does not require US engagement. His article in the International Herald Tribune outlined the situation as an assignment primarily for China and Russia, in addition to South Korea and Japan. In fact, in the article Safire urged the US government to disengage by ordering "a drawdown of US troops in South Korea". He insisted that Bush should "let Koreans pursue bold dialogues with each other" ("An assignment for China and Russia", IHT, 3 January). Bill Keller agreed stating that the manufacturing of nuclear weapons in North Korea "is not our (US) problem" (NYT, 4 January). Safire maintained that the priority should be Iraq. He argued that, "if the war to disarm Iraq were already over, with the point driven home that rogue-state nuclear threats trigger dire consequences, North Korea would not have seized this moment to renew its blackmail" (Safire, IHT, 3 January). In his mind, attacking Iraq would be an act of principle serving to dissuade all attempts at nuclear proliferation.

However, turning to the second question, there are doubts as to whether there exists a strong enough international commitment to enforce international treaties restricting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) were undermined in 1998 by India and Pakistan. Although international condemnation was quick to follow sanctions have practically dissipated. Currently, India and Pakistan enjoy trade with almost all nation states and maintain active nuclear programs. India just test fired its Agri-1 missile (nuclear capable, range of 800km.), just the other day. Experts indicate that India has between 60-100 nuclear weapons while Pakistan has between 25-50 (Sanjeev Miglani, Reuters, 12 January). There is also universal silence towards what Neil Sammonds describes as "the world's best-known and most efficient 'secret' manufacturer of WMD", Israel ("Fingers on all buttons", Index on Censorship: Inside the Axis of Evil, 3 January). Sources estimate that Israel has between 100-500 thermonuclear and nuclear weapons, not to mention its chemical and biological stockpiles (Neil Sammonds, 3 January).

Suggestions by opinion leaders such as William Safire and Senator John McCain that encouraging the nuclearization of Japan could be a viable strategy to counter North Korea undermines the already precarious state of US support for non-proliferation regimes (the US withdrew from the CTBT last year). The Financial Times reiterated this perspective put forward by Bush's critics who say that, "Washington no longer has a coherent view of arms control problems. Its vision, they say (critics of Bush), is blurred by hostility to the constraints imposed by international treaties and a fixation with Saddam Hussein" (Editorial, 11/12 January). The impotence of the international community and the benign neglect of the US towards North Korean nuclear proliferation has once again brought the non-proliferation regime to its knees.

Regarding the final question as to the best way to deal with the threat stemming from North Korea, there is a consensus against a military solution. All agree that the crisis should be resolved diplomatically. Russia, China, Japan and South Korea have agreed to place pressure on North Korea and engage in negotiations and this position has been backed by the EU. However, this unity is compromised by a confused US administration. While senior Japanese policy makers such as Shinzo Abe (deputy chief cabinet secretary) confirm that Kim Jong Il is a leader with reason (Abe is quoted in Reuters as stating that "when I spoke with Kim Jong Il, I got the impression that he was a person who can think rationally and Putin has the same impression", 11 January), US president, George W. Bush, made it no secret that he "loathed" Kim Jong Il (Bill Keller, 4 January). Although, recent articles indicate that the US is willing to "talk" to North Korea, it refuses to "negotiate" (Mark Egan and Jane Macartney, " Efforts to Defuse N. Korea Nuclear Crisis Intensify", Reuters, 12 January). The result has been confusion in Asia. Judging from North Korean demands it is clear that US engagement is fundamental, however, as David E. Sanger reported certain Asian officials don't understand what the US is trying to do. An Asian diplomat admitted to Sanger that, "I'd just like to get a handle on what president Bush has in mind. He sends as many conflicting signals as the North Koreans" (Nuclear Mediators Resort to Political Mind Reading", The New York Times, 11 January). An increasing number of voices are calling for the matter to be taken up by the Security Council (Ralph A. Cossa, Brad Glosserman, William C. Potter etc.), however, the US is reluctant to see the issue gain greater attention, no doubt at the expense of its objectives in Iraq.

While US policy of benign neglect is contributing to a rise in the level of threat in East Asia with Japanese citizens feeling increasingly "scared" (see Yuri Kageyama, "Japan demands N. Korea to Honor Treaty", Associated Press, 10 January) it is ironic that the US continues to work tirelessly to build a coalition in support of a military attack on Iraq (which has yet to be justified) and neglects to take advantage of an already existing international alliance and mechanisms to dismantle North Korea's proven nuclear program. Obviously there are strategic interests at stake, however, Japan and all other states concerned, should insist that the US engage fully in attempting to resolve the crisis in North Korea immediately as a matter of international security.

Articles:

  • Sanjeev Miglani, "India wrestles with paradox of nuclear states", Reuters, 12 January 2003
  • Mark Egan and Jane Macartney, " Efforts to Defuse N. Korea Nuclear Crisis Intensify", Reuters, 12 January 2003
  • Editorial, "Force and Resistance", El Pais, 12 January 2003 (translated by author)
  • Sanjeev Miglani, "India wrestles with paradox of nuclear states", Reuters, 12 January 2003
  • Editorial, "N. Korea raises nuclear stakes", The Financial Times, 11/12 January 2003
  • David E. Sanger, "What does North Korea want?", The New York Times, 12 January 2003
  • David E. Sanger, "Nuclear Mediators Resort to Political Mind Reading", The New York Times, 11 January 2003
  • "Japan thinks dialogue can settle North Korean crisis", Reuters, 11 January 2003
  • Yuri Kageyama, "Japan demands N. Korea to Honor Treaty", The Associated Press, 10 January 2003
  • Bill Keller, "At the short end of the Axis of evil: Some F.A.Q.'s", The New York Times, 4 January 2003
  • Robert Fisk, "The double standards, dubious morality and duplicity of this fight against terror", The Independent, 4 January 2003
  • Neil Sammonds, "Fingers on all the buttons", Index on Censorship: Inside the Axis of Evil, 3 January 2003
  • William C. Potter, "A far bigger nuclear threat than Iraq", The International Herald Tribune, 3 January 2003
  • William Safire, "An assignment for China and Russia", The International Herald Tribune, 3 January 2003
  • Ralph A. Cossa and Brad Glosserman, "Pyongyang vs. the international community", The International Herald Tribune, 3 January 2003
  • For other recent Media Reviews on North Korea see #'s, 78, 77, 72, 70, 68 and 63.
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