Archive for Sunday, October 20, 2002

North Korea makes nuclear confession

October 20, 2002


— Confession is said to be good for the soul, but North Korea's sudden burst of religion is creating a dilemma for Washington, Tokyo and Seoul.

First, Pyongyang decides to come clean on the kidnapping of Japanese citizens. Then it confirms Washington's worst suspicions, confessing that it has a secret nuclear weapons program in direct violation to the 1994 U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework, not to mention the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and several other agreements.

What's going on here?

The reasons for playing true confessions with Japan are pretty obvious: Tokyo made it clear that there would be no progress toward normalization (and the billions of dollars of colonial-era compensation that might well follow) unless Pyongyang came clean on the abductions issue. But understanding Pyongyang's reasons for deciding to now come clean on its nuclear weapons is more difficult to fathom.

Clearly North Korea got caught with its hand in the cookie jar. When presented with the evidence of prohibited nuclear weapons activity by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly during his Oct. 3-5 visit to Pyongyang, North Korean officials first vigorously denied the allegations. Then, after an all-night meeting, said, "Of course we have a nuclear program," and blamed President Bush's "axis of evil" speech and the presence of U.S. forces in the South for their deliberate violation of formal agreements.

Some see deja vu here. In 1993-94 North Korea sparked an international crisis by becoming the first state to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, simultaneously refusing further compliance with that treaty's inspection regime. That led to the 1994 Agreed Framework (under which North Korea receives 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually and two light water reactors eventually in return for a verified freeze in its nuclear weapons program). Some analysts think Pyongyang purposely admitted to the violation to create a new crisis, hoping that would lead to a new and even better deal to compensate them for halting a project that was not supposed to exist in the first place.

South Korean officials are understandably concerned what is good for the soul has not been good for Seoul. President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" of engagement with the North was already under attack for being too trusting (and generous) toward the North. "Suspicions confirmed" has been the outcry from his opponents, and all the current presidential candidates (including the one from Kim's party) demanding Pyongyang's compliance with its promises and an end to its nuclear ambitions.

Some analysts tied North Korea's action to Iraq, saying the North may have decided to confess now because the Bush administration is so preoccupied with Iraq that it would have to accept Pyongyang's actions. Or, more likely, Washington's apparent determination to strike Iraq before it develops nuclear weapons caused Pyongyang to claim it has them in order to deter Washington from contemplating a strike against North Korea next.

It is worth noting that it is still unclear exactly what the North acknowledged having a secret program for developing nuclear weapons or the actual weapons themselves. North Korean officials reportedly also said they "have more powerful things as well," causing speculation about possible biological weapons Pyongyang's chemical weapons arsenal has been an open secret for years.

So far, the Bush administration's response to these revelations has been measured, non-threatening, and involves full consultation with Tokyo and Seoul. President Bush's expressed determination to address the issue through diplomatic channels should have evoked a few rounds of applause. Instead, it raised questions as to why the administration was revealing all this now and why a potential nuclear weapons program in Iraq called for attack, while a known program in North Korea called for negotiations.

All eyes will now be on the planned Oct 26 Bush-Kim-Koizumi summit in Mexico to see if the three leaders will speak with one voice on how to bring North Korea back into full compliance with its own earlier agreements, it is hoped without resorting to force. This topic will also become a central theme in the Japan-North Korea negations, scheduled to resume in Kuala Lumpur at the end of the month, and should be high on Seoul's list in its own negotiations with Pyongyang.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based non-profit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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