Frustrated by the collapse of six-party talks designed to end the North Korean nuclear program, President Bush last week said of North Korean despot Kim Jong-Il: “There is concern about his capacity to deliver a nuclear weapon. When you are dealing with a tyrant like Kim Jong –Il, you have to assume he can deliver.” The President’s remarks came at a particularly crucial juncture of the North Korean crisis: indeed, recent actions taken by North Korea’s totalitarian leadership—including firing a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan earlier this month—show that the Hermit Kingdom may be much closer to “delivering” on its nuclear threat than previously thought.
Last week, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that his sources believed North Korea had the capability to mount a warhead on one of its long-range missiles, placing the U.S. mainland at risk. Jacoby’s comments coincided with U.S. officials’ release of satellite reconnaissance imagery showing preparations being made by the reclusive North Koreans to conduct an underground nuclear test near Kilju, North Hamgyeong Province. Reconnaissance photos showed reviewing stands under construction, a large tunnel being filled which closely resembled the one used for Pakistan’s nuclear test in 1998, and heavy equipment being moved into the area -- all clear indications of an imminent underground nuclear test. In another sign that North Korea’s actions are not a ruse, the country also shut down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, leading some Western analysts to speculate that North Korea was collecting fuel rods necessary for making plutonium.
Not surprisingly, North Korea vehemently opposes any U.S. response to its nuclear weapons development, including approaching the U.N. Security Council to impose economic sanctions. Pyongyang has indicated that such action would be considered a “declaration of war.” But with North Korea showing visible hostility toward international disarmament efforts, it has become increasingly clear that some form of action must be taken to deter the country’s dangerous nuclear ambitions. What options, then, are available to the U.S.?
Military action by the U.S. is unlikely because of the size of North Korea’s conventional forces and the presence of nuclear weapons. North Korea has the fourth largest army in the world, with 1.2 million personnel. It has approximately 700,000 troops, 8,000 artillery pieces and 2,000 tanks positioned with 100 miles of the demilitarized zone. With significant commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq and possible conflicts with terrorist-sponsors Iran and Syria on the horizon, an offensive military action by the U.S. and its allies on the Korean peninsula would be extremely costly.
That said, the U.S. could simply ignore North Korea’s preparatory actions as an elaborate hoax designed to pressure President Bush into offering additional economic and diplomatic incentives. But considering that North Korea has had a nuclear program dating back to the early 1980’s, such ignorance carries great risk.
A third option is a resumption of six-party talks (including the U.S., Russia, Japan, North and South Korea and China) that ended almost a year ago. In March, the North Korean Foreign Ministry stated that it would not rejoin six party nuclear disarmament talks as long as the U.S. continued to label North Korea “an outpost of tyranny.” Bush’s comments last week, however, indicate a change in that approach is not likely.
In the end, China holds the key to peace on the Korean peninsula. Erratic policymaking, natural disasters and the collapse of the Soviet Union have all combined to hurt North Korea. This has forced Pyongyang to look to Beijing to provide most of its necessary food and energy. Recognizing this, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill recently requested that a “technical interruption” of North Korea’s oil supply from China be initiated which would force North Korea to return to six-party talks. Unfortunately, the Chinese denied the request, with Chinese official Yang Xiyu suggesting that the elimination of food deliveries would have the greatest impact.
If continued attempts at disarmament fail, could Washington accept a nuclear-armed North Korea as a member of the global nuclear club? During a visit to Japan, Michael Green, a senior U.S. official, said he believed that North Korea sold uranium hexafluoride, a component of uranium enrichment, to Libya in 2001. This places doubt on claims made by North Korea that its nuclear arsenal is for defensive purposes only. With the threat of global terrorism a constant concern, it would be difficult for the U.S. to accept a country that sold nuclear technology and materials on the open market.
All this leaves the U.S. in the unenviable position of possibly having to make certain uncomfortable concessions that are counter to its stated policy concerning North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. One such concession may include holding direct talks with the North Korean government in addition to the current six-party talks. Second, the U.S. may need to consider increasing North Korea’s exposure to developmental, educational and training opportunities in the areas of energy, agriculture and manufacturing through sponsor organizations such as the United Nations, European Union and World Bank. This would encourage economic and social responsibility and give the North Korean leadership exposure to positive third-party influences. Third, North Korea could be granted temporary membership to certain world and regional bodies with the promise of permanent membership, if sustained progress in the areas of weapons disarmament, economic reform and human rights is achieved. Of course, all of these alternatives are contingent upon North Korea’s commitment to open and honest dialogue.
If an agreeable solution between the parties is not reached within the next few weeks, the current crisis has the potential to spiral wildly out of control -- becoming a catastrophic event unmatched in its destruction. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright stated earlier this week, “We [Clinton administration] were afraid that…North Korea was the most dangerous place in the world.”
Unfortunately, that assumption remains valid even today.
Frederick W. Stakelbeck, Jr. is a freelance writer who resides in Philadelphia.