ICAS Special Contribution


After the Bomb Was Over:
Coordinating Proliferation Strategy in Northeast Asia Following the North Korean Nuclear Test.

Dennis P. Halpin

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Email: icas@icasinc.org

Biographic Sketch & Links: Dennis P. Halpin

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution of this paper
with written permission to ICAS of Dennis P. Halpin. sjk]

After the Bomb Was Over:
Coordinating Proliferation Strategy in Northeast Asia Following the North Korean Nuclear Test.

Dennis P. Halpin

United States Nuclear Strategy Forum Presentation

October 12, 2006

This paper represents my own views and not necessarily those of the House Committee on International Relations or its Chairman, Henry J. Hyde.

Thank you to the Forum, and especially to Congressman Curt Weldon, for inviting me to speak on North Korea and proliferation -- a very timely subject given events of the past week.

Let us begin with a fairy tale. Once upon a time there was a very sad country with a very evil ruler. He tortured not only his own people but threatened his peaceful neighbors. He established a personality cult where all had to worship him and none would dare imply that the emperor had no clothes. He had secret contacts, and business negotiations, with other rogue regimes and with shadowy, unsavory characters from the world of terrorism. He kidnapped and assassinated people. He conducted biological and chemical experiments on helpless victims. He stated that he sought weapons of mass destruction to keep the democratic nations of the world at bay. He shunned democracy and the most basic of human rights. He treated the UN with contempt. He drove out international inspectors sent to assess his compliance with the international inspection regime placed on his weapons development. Who was he?

If you answered Kim Jong Il you are right. If you answered Saddam Hussein you are also right. Why then has Washington's reaction to these two admitted proponents of weapons proliferation been so different? Especially given the fact that one has been steadily developing nuclear weapons for more than a decade and the other apparently gave them up while choosing not to admit this, perhaps out of fear of being perceived as weak. The reason for military action in one case and not in the other is quite simple. Military action has been ruled out in the case of North Korea since Korean People's Army (KPA) artillery, hidden in mountains and tunnels near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), holds the population of Seoul, the fifth largest city in the world, hostage. No one presumes that Pyongyang's previous warning to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" is an empty threat. And no one wants to find out. At least the events of the last week have allowed us to find out the answer to one of the most pressing questions regarding proliferation in the past few years: where are the weapons of mass destruction? They are, of course, in North Korea.

And why did Kim Jong Il see this week as an opportune moment to defy the international community -- especially the United States which has officially stated that it would never accept a nuclear North Korea -- and go forward with the long threatened nuclear test? I would suggest that Kim Jong Il is a cable news aficionado and certainly knows more of what is going on in the United States than we know about what is going on inside North Korea. Knowing this, he has taken a page from his father's playbook, as I suggested last week in comments I made at an East-West Center event.

Back in 1968, the Dear Leader's father, Kim Il Sung, cagily sized up the American political situation and engaged in brinkmanship because he knew his actions would be met with minimum consequences. His action was the seizure of the USS Pueblo in January 1968 when Lyndon Johnson was in crisis, both domestically and internationally. Johnson found his military forces overextended in Vietnam -- the Tet offensive was only a few weeks away -- some even suggest the North Koreans coordinated the Pueblo seizure with the North Vietnamese. National morale in the United States was low. 1968 was a year of political disaster for President Johnson personally -- two months after the Pueblo seizure he unexpectedly announced, due to plummeting popularity, that he would not seek the Presidency again. So old Kim figured it was a perfect time to thumb his nose at Washington and get away with it. He held the Pueblo crew for eleven months, despite a declaration from then Secretary of State Dean Rusk that this action represented an "act of war." Kim then illicited an apology (which we later rescinded) before he returned the crew, who had been tortured, but not the vessel which is still a museum piece in North Korea. The Great Leader, like some riverboat gambler, had read his opponent's facial features well and had successfully called his bluff. Washington engaged in much huffing and puffing but produced no punitive consequences.

Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, the son, also expects a lot of huffing and puffing this time but calculates that there will be no real consequences. Kim is counting on the fact that an agitated but divided United Nations Security Council will not be able to get its act together beyond issuing a strongly worded letter of condemnation or passing a resolution that is high on rhetoric but low on consequences. You may recall from the movie, Team America: World Police, where the UN sends weapons inspector Hans Blix to one of Kim Jong Il's palaces to express its displeasure. Blix informs the Dear Leader that UN officials are "very, very angry" and so they will "write a letter." Kim Jong Il does not have time for such bureaucratic nonsense and tosses the hapless Hans into a tankful of sharks. End of story.

Kim Jong Il and his generals also seem to feel a need for a guarantee, given the post-September 11th Bush doctrine of preemption, that what happened to Saddam Hussein does not happen to them. Thus they sought assurances in last year's September 19th Joint Statement from the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks that the United States had no hostile intent toward them. It should be noted that none of the Parties involved sought reciprocal specific assurances in the Joint Statement regarding Pyongyang's continuing hostile intent toward the Government of South Korea -- the rationale for the continued U.S. military presence on the southern half of the peninsula fifty-three years after the Armistice was signed.

The paranoia in Pyongyang was not, however, alleviated even by the Joint Statement. What better way, then, to insure that the neocons in Washington do not implement a preemptive plan for regime change in Pyongyang than to demonstrate the presence of a nuclear arsenal by conducting a test? Kim may also be operating on the principle that his potential proliferation customers, like someone buying a used car, wanted a "test drive" of the product before purchasing. Iran was certainly watching. Iranians were reportedly present to observe the July 4th missile launches. And North Korean missile proliferation is a known fact. The trail runs from Pyongyang to A.Q. Khan in Pakistan to Iran to Hezbollah to the cities of northern Israel.

Whatever Pyongyang's motives with regard to acquiring the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, a nuclear bomb, the result is a further destabilization of Northeast Asia. And beyond that, Pyongyang's defiance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which it once signed and then walked away from, has left the whole non-proliferation regime, worldwide, in a shambles.

The key to managing this North Korean disruption of the world's non-proliferation regime is China. Pyongyang has long known, based upon Beijing's continued protection of its flank despite increasingly outrageous behavior, that China has a fundamentally different goal on the Korean peninsula than the United States. Our number one goal has been, and remains, a nuclear free Korean peninsula. While Beijing has been increasingly concerned about this, its number one goal has always been to prevent regime collapse. This is for a variety of reasons. The oldest is the "lips and teeth" solidarity of the militaries of the two countries, forged in the crucible of the Korean War, although this has become less important as a motivating force with the passage of time. A second reason is that Beijing sees a like-minded buffer state on the border of its economically depressed northeast region as imperative to preventing an influx of cultural pollution and western political ideas. A third reason is the fear of a stampede of refugees across the porous border which a sudden collapse of North Korea would entail. A fourth reason is a fear of potential irredentism which could arise if China's substantial Korean minority faced a unified Korea just across the two-river Sino-Korean border. Given these factors, will Beijing really be willing to step up to the plate and impose and enforce stiff punitive sanctions? Will Beijing be willing to evoke Chapter VII of the UN Charter? Perhaps the special envoy, State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, who arrived yesterday afternoon from Beijing with an urgent message from President Hu Jintao will answer this question.

Beijing is certainly highly irritated with Pyongyang's increasingly boorish behavior. A Chinese journalist told me this summer that the main reason Beijing supported the watered-down, Japanese-sponsored Resolution 1695 condemning North Korea's July 4th missile launches was the rude treatment given a visiting Chinese delegation in Pyongyang. The Dear Leader kept the Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Hui Liangyu cooling his heels for three days before it became apparent that he would not meet with him. Beijing lost face. Beijing should expect to get used to losing face when it comes to North Korea. Chinese fury over being ignored by the Dear Leader was demonstrated by its Security Council vote for Resolution 1695. But the failure to invoke Chapter VII -- to maintain or restore international peace and security -- in Resolution 1695 meant that it was largely without teeth. A few weeks later the crisis in Lebanon erupted and the world largely forgot the North Korean missile launches. That's what Kim is counting on again -- the world's short attention span. This time Beijing, however, must answer this question: if defying the UN and the international non-proliferation regime by openly testing a nuclear device does not constitute grounds for invoking Chapter VII of the UN Charter, then what good is the UN?

Some say that Pyongyang this time has finally crossed the famous "red line" -- a radioactive Rubicon. Does this mean Beijing will no longer put regime survival ahead of nonproliferation concerns? That remains to be seen. It was not encouraging last month when Beijing, along with Moscow, decided to stay away from the Five-plus-Five meeting which Secretary Rice sought to organize in New York to jump-start the Six-Party process. (The additional Five are Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Malaysia and New Zealand.)

And what will the United States do? For over a decade North Korea has reportedly steadily increased its weapons arsenal while the United States, often distracted by other crises elsewhere, has been unable to put the breaks on Pyongyang's nuclear ambition. Even before the Agreed Framework finally collapsed, the North Koreans were reportedly engaged in processing highly enriched uranium (HEU) in violation of the spirit if not the letter of that agreement. As then Secretary of State Albright stood in a Pyongyang stadium next to the Dear Leader in October 2000, the Dear Leader's scientists were producing HEU almost under her very nose. In my opinion, the key failure of the well-intentioned Agreed Framework was the lack of specification for the removal from the Korean peninsula of the spent fuel rods at the Yongbyon reactor site as an integral part of the deal. The rods' continued presence in North Korea, even with inspectors monitoring them, provided Kim Jong Il with an exit strategy from the Agreed Framework at any time of his own choosing. If he were sincere in his renunciation of the processing of plutonium why did he need the rods? Ronald Reagan said "trust but verify." With regard to North Korea, the watchword should have been "trust, verify and remove."

The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was a direct result of another nuclear crisis -- the thirteen days of 1962 when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation. President Kennedy's response to the shipment of Soviet missiles with nuclear warheads to Cuba was a naval quarantine of the island. In that case, just on the eve of destruction, Khrushchev blinked and the world was saved.

There seem to be echoes of Cuba in the discussions now being held concerning the use of the current Administration's Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to interdict ships arriving or departing North Korea. This is not without considerable risk as Pyongyang could very well interpret such moves as an act of war. Hopefully, those considering this approach have considered the full implications. What is to be the reaction, for example, if North Korean military forces resist an attempt to interdict and inspect a ship either before docking or after embarking from a North Korean port? Kim Jong Il knows full well that Khrushchev fell from power two years after he backed down to the Americans. He also knows that he, unlike Khrushchev, would not spend his retirement years in a dacha after being purged.

Even if such naval interdiction is feasible, it is not the same as President Kennedy's move against Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis there. Cuba is an island and one can surround it by sea. Korea is a peninsula. North Korea shares land borders with China, South Korea, and Russia. Would these players honor a PSI naval interdiction by sealing their own land borders? If unmonitored food, fuel and defense materials continue to flow across the Yalu, then a naval interdiction is merely risky without being effective.

And what would the United States do if China refuses to cooperate in this endeavor? Former Deputy Secretary of State Zoellick promoted the concept of China as a "responsible stakeholder" in the international community, most recently at a hearing held by the International Relations Committee in May. What better occasion for China to demonstrate its responsibility as an international stakeholder than by actively seeking to resolve the current nuclear crisis in Northeast Asia. But if China fails to act, what is the United States to do? Is nonproliferation in East Asia such a fundamental principle for us that we would be willing to tell Beijing that the entire bilateral relationship would be placed on the table, including trade and Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR)? Would a pro-trade, pro-business administration be willing to play, if need be, the Walmart card? Would American business respond patriotically, noting that now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of their country? Would we begin to express reservations about participation in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing?

What of bilateral talks as a way out of the impasse? Two Members of the International Relations Committee, Mr. Leach and Mr. Lantos, expressed interest in such a possibility at the Committee's hearing last month on Korea. And former Secretary of State Baker made a good point: "it is not appeasement to talk to your enemies." However, as noted in reference to the Pueblo incident, timing is everything with regard to North Korea. Is the message that the way to get Washington's attention is to act out on the world stage one that we really want to send to Pyongyang? If the talks break down later, does North Korea then fire more missiles or conduct another underground test? Even after the passage of a respectable interval following the nuclear test, talks with North Korea must be approached with a clear roadmap of what we are offering and what we expect in return. Otherwise, as Chamberlain found out with regard to the Sudatenland when he met with Hitler, a wily dictator can run rings around Western diplomats who are overly concerned with cutting any deal that demonstrates progress. Another point that has been made but bears reinforcement: there are more stakeholders with regard to the North Korean nuclear issue than just Pyongyang and Washington. China, as described above, has vast interests. In Japan, the North Korean proliferation crisis is regarded, as one expert told me, as "Japan's Cuban Missile Crisis." Russia does not want radiation blowing into its Far Eastern region. And South Korea shares the territory of the same small peninsula with the bomb maker. I read a news article that even suggested we just walk away from the Korean peninsula, wash our hands, and leave it all to Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo and Moscow to sort out. Given Iraq fatigue, this option would have no small appeal with the American public.

And what of our ally, South Korea? Has the nuclear shock of this past weekend finally convinced Seoul that "sunshine, lollipops and rainbows" is not a viable policy when dealing with North Korea? Will the North Korean cash cows -- the Diamond Mountain tourist project and the Kaesong Industrial Complex -- be shut down as a result? Not likely, according to current indications. Although one-third of the 1,260 South Korean tourists headed for the scenic Diamond Mountains canceled their trip the day after the nuclear test, the South Korean Government allowed the other two-thirds to go forward. Even with an unstable, dictatorial regime on its doorstep wielding for the first time a nuclear weapon, it seems to be business as usual in Seoul. Seoul reportedly even continued to quibble this week with the Americans over the burden sharing costs of keeping the U.S. military in Korea, according to South Korean news reports. Wouldn't one think that, with the shadow of North Korean nuclear weapons now over the peninsula, now would be a good time to keep the Americans happy? Certainly, at a bare minimum, South Korean Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiators should not press the American negotiating team in future rounds by bringing up the dead horse of inclusion of Kaesong-made products in a South Korean FTA with the United States. The American people do not want to buy goods from the nuclear-armed, dictatorial Kim Jong Il regime. Period.

All of this could be irrelevant if the Democrats retake the House in a few weeks. United Auto Worker (UAW) ally Sander Levin of Michigan, the ranking Member on the Trade Subcommittee of Ways and Means, would likely take over the Subcommittee gavel. Levin warned USTR in September that "The Bush Administration continues to move in the wrong direction by failing to make it totally clear to the South Koreans that these unfair non-tariff barriers (NTBs) must be knocked over in any negotiations. A successful trade agreement with South Korea needs more than empty promises or rhetoric in sectors, such as automobiles, that are of critical importance to America's manufacturers." Seoul's decision regarding how to address the Kaesong issue in light of North Korea's nuclear test could be critical in putting the FTA agreement back on track.

Another South Korean related question is how will the new UN Secretary General, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, react if his inauguration is immediately followed by a crisis engulfing his home peninsula? As an advocate, under the Roh Administration, of the "sunshine policy," will Ban attempt to obfuscate the situation to avoid an international crisis? Did the U.S. UN Ambassador, John Bolton, or anyone in the PermFive ask Ban this question as part of a job interview for one of the highest profile international relations positions in the world?

International relations were supposed to be calm with the declared "end of history." While many breathed a sigh of relief when the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended, East Asia is one region of the world that became increasingly less stable as a result. Beijing, with the Soviet Red Army no longer at its back, was able to redeploy its ever-increasing military force away from its northern border and toward the east -- aiming missiles across the strait at Taiwan and challenging Japan over control of East China Sea natural gas fields. The 1996 Taiwan missile crisis was a partial result of Beijing's redeployment away from the former Soviet frontier.

A new nationalism in Japan has combined a desire to be a "normal nation" with a historic revisionism which disturbs Tokyo's neighbors. Tokyo justifiably wants a greater role in the world, including a permanent UN Security Council seat, which goes beyond the "checkbook diplomacy" for which it was roundly criticized during the Gulf War. The Armitage Report heralded Japan as the "Great Britain" for the United States in Asia. This boisterous image, however, ignored the sensitivities of the United States' other major East Asian ally, South Korea, a nation which must necessarily play a central role in the resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis. Yasukuni Shrine visits, insensitive statements on the comfort women issue, and revised textbooks have all set off alarm bells in Seoul.

Abe Shinjo, the new Japanese Prime Minister, recognized early on the critical importance to the Japanese public of the abductee issue as well as the public desire, following the 1998 missile launches, for a tougher stand toward Pyongyang. Abe played the North Korea card to leapfrog over elder politicians to become the youngest Prime Minister since the end of World War II. Kim Jong Il played his own part in promoting Mr. Abe. Abe's candidacy rose as high as the North Korean missiles after their launch on the Fourth of July and he totally eclipsed his more internationalist rival, Mr. Fukuda, who withdrew from the race for Prime Minister. Just as in the case of the Dear Leader's 2002 true confessions over the Japanese abduction issue, Kim Jong Il had apparently again misjudged Japanese public opinion. Given Abe's past public stance and the current crisis, the new Prime Minister has no choice but to present a tough posture -- especially with critical elections for the upper house of the Diet scheduled for mid-2007. Abe simply cannot back down when it comes to North Korea. A sign of Tokyo's toughness, besides its energetic work on the issue as this month's Security Council President, is the implementation of a new set of sanctions, including restrictions on remittances to North Korea by Korean residents of Japan and an end to the lucrative trade in North Korean mushrooms and seafood.

Any tough military moves by Tokyo run the risk, however, of playing into Pyongyang's hands when it comes to Beijing and Seoul. When Abe suggested, after the July 4th missile launches, that a preemptive strike by Tokyo against North Korea might be necessary, a number of commentators in Seoul turned the tables. They focused on the spurious charge that the missile launches revealed Japan's militarist intent to rearm rather than putting their focus on the North Korean missile launchers as the source of instability. Any move by Japan to "go nuclear" as a result of Pyongyang's nuclear test, which seems unlikely given the national psychic memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would certainly trigger an arms race in East Asia. Pyongyang would then play the siren song of a samurai Japan which would fall on willing ears in China and pull South Korea ever closer to the Chinese orbit. This would certainly not be in America's long-term interests in East Asia. Such an arms race could ultimately encompass Taipei and cross-Strait tensions as well.

The stakes are thus extremely high in this new Pacific Century. Perhaps Kim Jong Il's bravado will serve to draw the Bush Administration's eyes at least momentarily away from Iraq in order to engage in the construction of a more lasting security regime in the increasingly unstable East Asian region. Asia is grappling with issues similar to those which led to tragedy in Europe a century ago, including unapologetic nationalism and a feisty, unpredictable rising new power. Yet in this transformed world, Asia has become the lifeline for American commerce and continued prosperity. Pyongyang's "October surprise" has placed North Korea at the epicenter of the East Asian security crisis. How the North Korean nuclear issue is resolved will not only determine the future of the Korean peninsula and East Asia, but also whether the new Pacific Century is truly pacific. Thank you.

This page last updated 10/13/2006 jdb

ICAS Fellow
ICAS Speakers
& Discussants