North Korea's startling admission that it has maintained a secret nuclear weapons program could complicate Washington's policy toward Pyongyang as well as U.S. relations with other countries in East Asia.
Korea analysts in the United States say it did not come as a surprise that North Korea has a secret nuclear weapons program, that was suspected for a long time. But they say that North Korea chose to admit it was out of character for the secretive communist state.
After tense negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program during the Clinton administration, the United States and North Korea signed what is called the Agreed Framework in 1994. North Korea agreed to halt its nuclear weapons program in exchange for help from the United States, Japan and South Korea to build light water nuclear reactors to supply the country's energy needs. The North had halted work at its known nuclear facilities, but the United States suspected it was continuing work at secret locations.
Some analysts say North Korea may have thought that by admitting the secret weapons program to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly earlier this month, it would clear the way for progress in talks with Washington. Those observers see the admission as part of North Korea's recent effort to open the country diplomatically and economically.
But Larry Niksch, a specialist on East Asian political and security issues at the Congressional Research Service disagrees. In the context of the war on terrorism and President Bush's listing of North Korea as part of an axis of evil, Mr. Niksch says Pyongyang fears the United States may make North Korea its next target after Iraq. He says North Korea took the step as a deterrence. "Clearly I think the North Koreans meant to convey to the Bush administration a warning that: 'We have weapons of mass destruction', and I think the implied warning is that, 'We have nuclear weapons. And if you resort to the kind of military coercion that you are planning with regard to Iraq, if you do that against us, we have the means to hit back much harder than the Iraqis are going to be able to hit back'," he said.
Other analysts see things slightly differently. Gordon Flake, the director of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs, says the North was hoping Secretary Kelly's visit to Pyongyang would lead to a breakthrough in relations. But when Mr. Kelly presented Pyongyang with a list of demands and accusations, Mr. Flake says North Korea made a knee-jerk reaction. "I'm skeptical to try to put it into a broader context that this was intended and premeditated, that they wanted to use this as part of a process of opening or as a process of scaring the United States," he said. "I think it was a response to a U.S. accusation, and it was probably not a very well thought-out response."
Mr. Flake says North Korea's admission that it has been violating international agreements makes future talks extremely difficult and any future North Korean promises unbelievable. "The very basis of our relationship for the last eight years has been the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework, under which they've agreed to shut down their nuclear program," said Gordon Flake. "And the fact that they are basically admitting that they've been unfaithful to it is going to undermine already almost non-existent trust in anything the North Koreans say."
Mr. Flake and Mr. Niksch both believe the Bush administration will now terminate its commitments under the Agreed Framework. Mr. Niksch also says the United States is likely to demand very strict inspections of both nuclear and other kinds of facilities in North Korea, similar to the agenda that is being applied to Iraq. "If you do not get a resolving of this issue through inspections and through a North Korean commitment to dismantle this nuclear program and also to dismantle the nuclear weapons that clearly they have in their possession, if these things do not happen, then I think clearly the Bush administration is going to consider coercive measures against North Korea," said Larry Niksch. "These could include both economic measures and military measures."
The Korean peninsula is one of the most unstable areas in the world. There has been no peace treaty to formally end the Korean War that was fought in the early 1950s. And thousands of troops face each other across a heavily mined demilitarized zone.
Mr. Niksch says the North Korean revelation also complicates U.S. diplomacy with South Korea and Japan. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has had a strong policy of reconciliation with the North, and progress has been made recently in developing economic ties and resuming family reunions. Japan's prime minister recently visited Pyongyang, and North Korea apologized for its past abductions of Japanese citizens. The two countries are scheduled to hold talks later this month on normalizing relations.
With the North Korean nuclear weapons program still alive, analysts say regional diplomacy is certainly complicated because no country, even nations friendly with Pyongyang want a nuclear-armed North Korea.