North Korean Nukes and the Vicious Cycle of Crisis

North Korea had no choice but to pursue nuclear ambitions when facing U.S. hegemony
Choi Han Uk (internews)
In an open letter in OhmyNews, the Civil Network for a Peaceful Korea (CNPK)'s Cheong Wook Sik wrote that North Korea would find itself mired in a "vicious cycle swamp" due to its decision to arm itself with nuclear weapons, and because of this, Pyongyang was misjudging the situation. I generally agree with Cheong's analysis, but which to address a couple of points.
U.S. consistent strategy of seeking N. Korean collapse or regime change

The U.S. North Korean policy has been consistent -- North Korean collapse or regime change. This U.S. strategy has not changed in the 60 years since the division of Korea. Accordingly, this is not an original invention on the part of the Bush administration.

If "North Korean collapse or regime change" were the exclusive intellectual property of Washington's neo-cons, how would one explain the two near-wars on the Korean Peninsula during the Clinton administration in 1993-1994 and 1998-1999?

The Clinton administration persistently pressured North Korea until the late 1990s, caught up in the "North Korean collapse theory." By 2000, the final year of Clinton's term, construction of the light water reactors was only 20 percent completed, and with the exception of the heavy oil supplies, most of the Basic Agreement between the North and the U.S. had not been carried out.

The Clinton administration actively pursued dialogue with the North following Pyongyang's launch of its Kwangmyongsong 1 rocket in August 1998. After North Korea launched its satellite, the White House formed its North Korea policy review team led by William Perry, and in September 1999, Perry issued his "Perry Report," which could be said to be the guidelines of late Clinton administration policy toward North Korea. Accordingly, in late 1999, dialogue with the North was conducted in Washington and Berlin, and with the U.S.-DPRK Joint Communique of October 2000, the normalization of ties between North Korea and the U.S. appeared within sight.

If North Korea hadn't launched its Kwangmyongsong 1, the Clinton administration, too, would have put off carrying out the Basic Agreement and continuously pursued collapse or regime change in North Korea. "Collapse or regime change" has nothing to do with the North Korea's nuclear weapons, and has been a constant U.S. policy toward North Korea, no matter whose administration it was. Dialogue or confrontation between the North or U.S. has been determined by the dynamic relationship of strength between the two, not by who was sitting in the White House.

What if the North had not launched the Kwangmyongsong 1?

Cheong Wook Sik said, "The U.S. distorted intelligence about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that didn't exist and invaded Iraq." This is the essence of the U.S., and how it pursues its interests. We mustn't overlook the fact that regardless of whether there were WMDs in Iraq, the U.S. would have realized its political and military goals, even by distorting intelligence. Until it realizes collapse or regime change in North Korea, the U.S. will not change its North Korea policies, and as soon as North Korea reaches the limits of its defense capabilities, it will attack North Korea like Iraq.

The Bush administration has already been trying to bring about "collapse or regime change" in North Korea. North Korea has no choice but to arm itself with nuclear weapons because of this. North Korea's choice to develop nuclear weapons is not a reason for U.S. North Korea policy, but rather it is U.S. North Korea policy that is the reason for North Korea arming itself with nuclear weapons.


North Korea already had the capabilities to develop nuclear weapons by the late 1980s. North Korea began construction of a 5MWe reactor from July 1980, and by October 1986, it began operation in earnest. It also pushed the construction of two large reactors, with completion set for 1995 or 1996.

As North Korea's nuclear capabilities grew, the U.S. restarted dialogue with the North in late 1988, and under arguments for simultaneous inspections, the U.S. announced the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula and suspended its Team Spirit exercises in late 1991. Accordingly, North Korea signed the IAEA Safeguards Agreement in January 1992.

When the Clinton administration began in 1993, however, the U.S. began to strengthen political and military pressure on North Korea through such measures as restarting the Team Spirit exercises, and North Korea and the U.S. began the cycle of crises and dialogue. In June 1994, with Korea on the verge of war, the U.S.-North Korea Basic Agreement XX by way of dramatic negotiations, and North Korea froze its nuclear facilities.

Afterwards, another crisis came in 1996-1997. In that year, U.S. political and military pressure on North Korea hit its highest point. It was at that time that North Korea keenly needed nuclear weapons to preserve its existence. North Korea maintained its nuclear freeze, however, because it kept hanging on to a thread of hope in the Geneva Accords and U.S. good faith. This is actual proof that North Korea's goal is not nuclear weapons, but U.S. security guarantees.

U.S. policy toward North Korea is the reason for Pyongyang's nuclear weapons

It appeared that the vicious cycle of crisis would end here, but the Bush administration ignored the process of the last 10 years and returned to square one. White House neo-cons used the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to adopt a strategy of nuclear preemptive strikes, and labeled North Korea, Iran and Iraq the "Axis of Evil." This was no more than a declaration of war on North Korea. And in September 2002, the White House decided on a strategy of preemptive attacks known as the "Bush Doctrine" or "Rumsfeld Doctrine."

Accordingly, in March 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq, and from that time, word openly began leaking that North Korea was next. In February of 2003, it even sounded out the Roh Moo Hyun administration concerning a limited bombing campaign against the North.

From March 2003, large-scale military exercises like the RSOI and Foal Eagle began, and in August, the Ulchi Focus Lens exercise was turned into a real war training exercise, raising the level of military tension. In 2004, the "Freedom Banner 2004" exercise was carried out near the DMZ with the participation of 8,000 U.S. Marines. The U.S. also came out with a succession of preemptive strike scenarios such as OPLAN 5026, 5027, 5028, 5029 and 5030, driving the Korean Peninsula into a simmering state of crisis.

The Bush administration sat down for the first time with North Korea in October 2002, while in the background pushing plans to invade North Korea.

At that time, U.S. Undersecretary of State James Kelly raised suspicions about North Korea's "enriched uranium nuclear development program," and predicated dialogue with the North on Pyongyang "completely changing its position on the development and export of WMDs and ballistic missiles, threatening its neighbors, support for terror, cruel oppression of its citizens and other pending issues."

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju responded to Kelly's coercive demands by saying that North Korea has "something more powerful" than nuclear weapons. The U.S. said North Korea admitted to developing nuclear weapons, and in December 2002, it unilaterally shut off heavy oil shipments to North Korea. Ultimately, the Korean peninsula returned to the starting point of the nuclear issue.

What choices did the North have with the U.S.-DPRK Basic Agreement dead? Between disarming and surrendering as the U.S. demanded, or arming itself with nuclear weapons and resolving its security problems, there was only one choice. When a hostile nation is increasing its threat against you, disarmament is not a card one can play. If North Korea had chosen to disarm, an encore of what happened in Iraq would have happened on the Korean peninsula.

Bush administration takes things back to square one

When the Basic Agreement died, North Korea withdrew from the NPT in January 2003, restarted the Yongbyon nuclear facility in February, and in early March, it began replacing its spent fuel rods, a process it completed in late June. At every stage, it informed the U.S. and pursued dialogue and negotiations.

The Beijing talks were held in late April 2003, and the first round of six-way talks were convened in late August, but the U.S. intentionally postponed them by repeating only that North Korea should unilaterally disarm. When efforts toward dialogue and negotiations eventually came to naught, North Korea declared in its Supreme People's Assembly in September 2003 that it had "strengthened its nuclear deterrent." On Oct. 20, 2003, North Korea declared that it had successfully completed reprocessing of its uranium.

Through the Rodong Sinmun, North Korea hinted that it possessed nuclear weapons when it said in December that if the U.S. agreed to a simultaneous action-style package settlement, North Korea would "make no more nuclear weapons, would not test or transfer nuclear weapons, and would even freeze its peaceful nuclear power industry."

When North Korea repeated its "nuclear deterrent" explanation, the U.S. sent an unofficial delegation to the North. The U.S. nuclear physicists, including former Los Alamos National Laboratory Siegfried S. Hecker, visited the North from Jan. 6 to Jan. 10, 2004 and inspected the Yongbyon nuclear facility.

By showing U.S. officials its nuclear deterrent, North Korea put a full stop to the controversy over whether it possessed nuclear weapons. Former special envoy Jack Pritchard, who visited the North along with Stanford professor John Lewis, said that on January 8, he learned at Yongbyon that all 8,000 spent fuel rods had been moved, and that North Korea might have quadrupled its nuclear arsenal.

When North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons became a settled matter, the U.S. came forward for the second round of six-way talks. Even though the U.S. was compelled to come to the six-way talks with North Korea's nuclear armament pressing near, it was not ready to negotiate, nor did it have the will to do so. The talks ended with nothing, and the complaints of other six-way talk members grew louder.

In the end, the U.S., forced by opinion in the other participating countries, agreed to the principle of "talk for talk" and "action for action" during the third round of six-way talks in June 2004. This, too, was later overturned, and the six-way talks process went back to square one. It has been virtually confirmed that without change in the U.S. attitude, the six-way talks will be good for nothing. North Korea held out one last hope and watched the start of Bush's second term, but nothing changed.

Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea's vice foreign minister in charge of U.S. affairs, declared to a U.S. Congressional delegation visiting the North in January of this year that North Korea possessed nuclear weapons. Senator Curt Weldon conveyed this to the Bush administration, but instead, the newly designated Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, made the atmosphere worse by calling North Korea an "outpost of tyranny." President Bush's North Korea policies, too, did not fundamentally change, despite the lessened rhetoric in his State of the Union address.

Ultimately, North Korea had no choice but to declare its possession of nuclear weapons in order to resolve the Korean peninsula issue.

The U.S. had more than four chances to stop North Korea from arming itself with nuclear weapons. All it needed to do to resolve the issue was withdraw its hostile policies toward the North. The U.S., however, refused to do this. In this situation, the North had no choice but to arm itself with nuclear weapons. In the end, North Korea's nuclear weapons were a necessary result brought about by the hegemonic policies of the U.S.

The "malign neglect" strategy of the U.S. will fail

Cheong Wook Sik said North Korea had been adopting a two-pronged strategy of simultaneously putting pressure on the U.S. to withdraw its hostile policies toward Pyongyang while securing a deterrent against the U.S. He said, however, that North Korea would have a tough time making such a strategy work. Unlike Cheong's forecast, however, North Korea's strategy toward the U.S. is already succeeding.

Since the second half of the year, the U.S.-North Korea relationship has greatly deteriorated, with rumors of war appearing each month. Yet with the nuclear issue moving past the "redline" and reaching a "critical point," now, no one talks of war on the Korean peninsula.

The Bush administration said during a press conference on Feb. 17 -- immediately following North Korea's nuclear declaration -- that the situation with North Korea was different from Iraq, and that it was time to work together with U.S. friends and allies in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue. This meant the U.S. would resolve the North Korean nuclear issue diplomatically. North Korea's successful acquisition of nuclear weapons has made it so the U.S. cannot play its "military card" before it secures the means to respond militarily to North Korean nuclear capabilities.

Cheong said the U.S. would, over the long term, systematically prepare the military and non-military means to make North Korea collapse, but this acknowledges that since North Korea armed itself with nuclear weapons, the possibility of war on the Korean peninsula has decreased.

This alone is a huge success for North Korea. The fact that the U.S. had no choice but to adopt its "malign neglect" strategy was because North Korea's nuclear weapons had deterred the U.S. from playing the military card, and this was the most essential and important success gained through Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal.

The next question is whether the U.S. "malign neglict" strategy will work? Cheong said the U.S. had designated as its "redline" any North Korean attempt to export nuclear materials or technology to the outside, and that Washington was focusing its energies on making sure this didn't happen. He also said that if the U.S. could do this while keeping arguments that South Korea and Japan should go nuclear in check, the benefits for the Bush administration would outweigh the costs.

The question is whether the U.S. would be able to maintain its redline. Like Cheong analyzed, the U.S. might have temporary success with its deterrent strategy. Blockading the North is a different matter. If the North actively sought to export nuclear materials and technologies, how would the U.S. respond? If a second Cuban missile crisis were to unfold, the U.S. could no longer continue its "malign neglect" strategy. The U.S. would have to choose between negotiations with the North or total war.

The second large reactor mentioned previously might be finished by mid-2005. At the latest, it could from 2006 start securing for North Korea enough plutonium to make 100 nuclear warheads a year. If it were to restart long-range missile tests, North Korea could after 2005 have the capacity to mass-produce WMDs, and U.S. non-proliferation policies would face a grave crisis.

Cheong said the Bush administration was one that "required a threat," but the thing the Bush administration needs is not a "real threat," but rather a "hypothetical threat" it can control.

If North Korea were to appear as a "real threat" and threaten U.S. non-proliferation policies, the situation would have to unfold in a manner quite different from now. Because of this, for the U.S. "malign neglect" strategy to work, the situation must not worsen. Such a possibility, however, is weak.

An arms race would be more costly for the U.S. than North Korea. Cheong said that for North Korea's nuclear arsenal to provide real deterrence against the U.S., several conditions would have to be satisfied, and for North Korea to secure for itself the necessary fighting power, it would take much money, advanced technology and time.

However, money and time are nothing more than initial costs. Because, as is well known, North Korea has already moved past the first stage in the nuclear and ballistic missile sectors, the additional costs are drastically decreasing. To the contrary, because of its nuclear deterrent, the North could reduce its spending on conventional weapons and escape from the defense spending burdens that have greatly increased since the 1960s.

Moreover, North Korea's nuclear arsenal, which is for defensive purposes, does not require a "symmetrical balance" with the U.S., which has as its goal preemptive strikes. Because of this, compared to the U.S., which has to develop advanced means to launch preemptive strikes like missile defense and bunker busters, the burden on North Korea is lighter.

The advanced weapon development plans of the U.S. require an astronomical amount of money, but their chances for success are thin. Because of this, it's the U.S. that is likely to get mired in an arms race "vicious circle." Even if the U.S. were to concentrate its attacks on North Korea's economic fragility, its chances of success are unknown.

Currently, North Korea's biggest weak points are energy and food. Yet if North Korea completes its second reactor, the country could secure for itself 1,000 MWt of electricity a year, and with this generally resolve its energy problems. Analysis is also that North Korea has passed the crisis point in its food shortages, and once its large-scale land reform project that it has been pushing since the late 1990s is complete, a fundamental breakthrough will become possible.

Even in a worst-case scenario, there will be no repeat of the hardships of the mid-1990s. There is almost no possibility that the North Korean regime, which weathered the crisis of the 1990s, will collapse under much more favorable circumstances. And because China and Russia are unlikely to actively participate in squeezing North Korea, the U.S. is unlikely to meet with any real success even if it were to focus its attacks on the North Korean economy.

The U.S. began dialogue with the Soviet Union after it successfully tested an ICMB, and after China successfully tested fission and fusion devises in 1964-1967, the U.S. moved to improve its relationship with China, ultimately withdrawing its military from Taiwan and establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979.

The U.S. cannot continue to ignore North Korea's nuclear weapons, even in order to maintain its hegemonic strategy. Once it prepares for itself a justification to talk, the U.S. will begin negotiations with North Korea.

Even while pointing out that by acquiring nuclear weapons, the North would become mired in a vicious arms race cycle, Cheong did not present any alternative besides North Korean nuclear weapons to break the vicious cycle of crisis on the Korean peninsula.

For North Korea to abandon its nuclear arsenal is ultimately to call for either a Libyan-style or Iraqi-style resolution to the problem. Such a claim is an irresponsible one that could prove a greater threat to the Korean peninsula.

2005/04/04 오후 2:23
© 2005 Ohmynews

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