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North Korea Plays its Nuclear Card - 2003-02-07

In 1994, North Korea pledged to end its quest for an atomic arsenal. Under the terms of the Agreed Framework signed by Pyongyang and Washington, the United States has supplied fuel oil to North Korea and promised to help build nuclear power plants to meet the country's growing energy needs. In return, North Korea's rulers were supposed to end their nuclear weapons program. They didn't.

Last month -- when U-S diplomats confronted North Korean officials with evidence that Pyongyang had been violating the treaty -- they had little choice but to admit to pursuing a nuclear weapons program. And according to U-S officials, the North Koreans may already have built "several" atomic bombs.

Joseph Bermudez is one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea's military.

"While the current interest is centered around a uranium enrichment program based upon technology apparently received from Pakistan, there was a time in North Korea's nuclear weapons program -- back in the late 1970s and early 1980s -- when it was possible that North Korea engaged in uranium enrichment," Mr. Bermudez said. "If that were the case, then our estimate of their program and their potential weapons capability could be significantly off."

That may mean North Korea is further along with its nuclear weapons program than many analysts now fear. And -- according to Joseph Bermudez -- Kim Jong Il's ballistic missile program is even more developed.

Analysts say the North Korean dictator soon may be able to place a nuclear warhead atop of a missile capable of striking most of East Asia. So what are Pyongyang's intentions?

"North Korea does not want a nuclear arsenal, but it does want to use atomic bombs as a bargaining chip to get what it wants from the United States," said Bruce Cummings, a long time Korea watcher and professor of history and international affairs at the University of Chicago.

"It seems to me that North Korea is engaged in one of two things. Either they are building weapons to give them up for a new relationship with the United States which, I think is exactly what's happening. Or the down side and very dangerous side is that they're trying to build-up a nuclear arsenal for deterrence. But they can't use the weapons. Nuclear weapons cannot be used against countries that have them. And if the North Koreans ever used a weapon of mass destruction of any kind, they would get what Colin Powell back in 1995 said they would get. They would get their country turned into a charcoal briquette."

"Let's face it. The primary objective of the North Korean elite is survival, not suicide," said Robert Scalapino, professor emeritus of political science at the University of California at Berkeley . . . and another expert on North Korea.

"They know that they could do tremendous damage to the south -- with or without nuclear weapons. But in the end, they would be pulverized by American and South Korean military power. And they're aware of this. Consequently, military power is, in part, a weapon for bargaining."

Most observers call it "diplomacy by extortion." They say the communist north is building atomic weapons in order to secure economic aid and special trade agreements with its neighbors and the West in exchange for curtailing its nuclear weapons program.

Pyongyang maintains that it needs a deterrent to possible South Korean, Japanese and American military aggression against North Korea. But Victor Cha -- a professor of international relations and East Asian affairs at Georgetown University here in Washington -- says that argument has lost its credibility.

"The north has always argued that while they're interested in economic reform, they need to leverage the security threat because they're not certain that the intentions of the rest of the world are really benign in terms of negotiating with North Korea," Mr. Cha said. "And that certainly will be the argument they'll put forward again to justify this secret program. The problem now, though, is that -- if we go back to 1994 -- we have eight years of engagement on the record with North Korea by the South Koreans, the Japanese, the United States, the Europeans and the Australians. And I think it would be very difficult to survey all of these countries that have engaged with North Korea and argue to them that they have not credibly communicated that their intentions are benign. So in that sense, I think that this argument that the north continues to put forward -- while it still may be credible to them -- is becoming less and less credible to the rest of the world.

North Korea is a tightly controlled totalitarian state and home to the world's only communist dynasty -- first ruled by Kim Il Sung and now by his son, Kim Jong Il. But state planning and a command economy have failed the regime, which is plagued by shortages of the most basic necessities and is on the brink of famine. This has forced North Korea to rely increasingly on international aid and to experiment with economic reform.

"They have been trying to make major reforms that they never made before. Last summer, in particular, they started using price mechanisms rather than government allocation of goods and supplies in the economy and they started to set-up a huge free export zone in the northwestern part of the country which would be a kind of Hong Kong for North Korea," said Bruce Cummings of the University of Chicago. "Those are enormous changes that suggest more confidence by the regime's leadership rather than the idea that they might be collapsing at some point. It's a very complicated situation and North Korea certainly has been propped-up by others from collapsing, but it has also propped-up itself. The North Koreans are constantly being underestimated by just about everybody. That regime has resources and survival skills that, I think, most Americans would have no idea about. It wouldn't be a good idea, in my view, to push them to the wall where they are near collapse."

Iran, Iraq and North Korea make up what President Bush has called an "axis of evil." But how the United States handles Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il will surely differ, even though both are thought to be developing weapons of mass destruction. Because of their economic ties, North Korea's neighbors have the potential for greater influence with Pyongyang than countries in the Middle East have with Baghdad.

James Lilley served as U-S Ambassador to South Korea under former presidents Reagan and Bush, and is a Senior Fellow for Asian Affairs at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington. He says that unlike in Iraq, U-S economic pressure will be crucial in bringing about change in North Korea.

"I think the main difference is how we deal with them," Mr. Lilley said. "The North Koreans are a country born in communism and born in god-king leadership based on their dynasties. And it has always been a society concentrated at the top. It doesn't have the minorities like the Shiites and the Kurds. It is a homogeneous place. In Iraq, economic sanctions have not been successful. Iraq is a relatively richer country. It has a lot of oil. It is sitting on top of a huge resource. The only way really to get Iraq to move, I believe, is a threat of military action under U-N sanctions or, if that doesn't work, a coalition of forces that will bring about change or get at their weapons of mass destruction. In North Korea, the military option just isn't there. You are unable to attack that country. The prospect of massive retaliation against the south is very, very real. What's in North Korea that isn't in Iraq is huge leverage."

But regardless of how that leverage is applied -- there's almost universal agreement among experts that the key to dealing with either Iraq or North Korea is on-the-ground verification that neither country is pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

With more than a million men under arms, Pyongyang maintains the 5th largest military in the world. Adding the possibility of atomic bombs to Kim Jong Il's suspected arsenal of chemical and biological weapons only heightens the concerns for what could be a dangerous game on brinksmanship on the Korean peninsula.