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Experts Expect Eventual Acceptance of Nuclear North Korea

North Korea's recent claim to have carried out a nuclear test was not a huge surprise to experts who have long suspected the country of having the capability. Given the current reality, Korea watchers say they expect the international community to shift its goal of achieving a nuclear-weapons free Korean peninsula to one of counter-proliferation, as they continue to discuss Pyongyang's nuclear programs.

In the days before North Korea's claimed nuclear test on Monday, the U.S. representative to the so-called six party North Korean nuclear talks, Chris Hill, bluntly warned Pyongyang that Washington and its allies would not accept a nuclear North Korea.

But, now that North Korea has carried out a test, analysts say the rhetoric toward North Korea is likely to change. Michael Swaine, at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, believes those kinds of tough statements will be altered to address the reality of the situation. "I believe what we will see over the next months, if not years, will be in effect the emergence of a de-facto acceptance of a nuclear North Korea," he said.

This shift was apparent in comments President Bush made on North Korea, at the White House Wednesday. Mr. Bush indicated that one of his main concerns now is not whether North Korea will go nuclear, but that Pyongyang could transfer nuclear technology to others, including terrorists and rogue states. "So, in response to North Korea's provocation, we will increase defense cooperation with our allies, including cooperation on ballistic missile defense to protect against North Korean aggression, and cooperation to prevent North Korea from exporting nuclear and missile technologies," he said.

Former State Department official Randy Schriver, who is now with the consulting firm Armitage International, praises the U.S. government's decision to accept reality and, in his words, draw a "red line" at proliferation activities. "I guess I was a bit confused about (U.S. government officials saying) "we will not live, we will not tolerate" when, in fact, we have been for a decade," he said.

He urged the international community to move quickly to impose sanctions against North Korea because of Monday's test. "I would think that a timely U.N. resolution is more important than a perfect U.N. resolution. /// OPT /// I would not let the perfect be the enemy of the good on this. /// END OPT /// I think what North Korea needs to see and what others need to see is a very prompt response that reflects consensus of the international community and consensus among the powers who are involved in this," he said.

At the same time, Schriver said the international community should offer North Korea what he described as an "off ramp," or a face-saving way out, which includes incentives, such as bilateral talks and other economic benefits, to make the deal more attractive to Pyongyang.

Alan Romberg, at the Stimson Center, an independent organization that focuses on international security issues, says he believes direct U.S.-North Korean talks were appropriate in the past. But now, he adds, given Washington's reaction to the North's apparent nuclear test, he doesn't expect they will happen anytime in the near future. "Those who argue for (bilateral talks) now, as the U.N. is considering these resolutions, are barking up the wrong tree (are being unrealistic)," he said.

And Romberg says if the United States seeks too tough a resolution against North Korea, it will be hard to get the full support of the Security Council. "On the resolution, let me simply say I don't blame the (Bush) administration for tabling a tough measure (at the U.N.). But I think it will likely have to accept something that is several steps back from that if we're going to get unanimity, which I think is the crucial thing," he said.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Michael Swaine says the difficulty in reaching international consensus is likely to result in what he described as a "messy" outcome. He says he expects North Korea will be punished for its actions, but that the focus of international efforts will be forced to change, from overall denuclearization of the Korean peninsula to counter-proliferation. "And, (there will be) greater emphasis among the five parties of trying to reach agreement on deterring North Korea from conducting future tests, and preventing proliferation, which is really the critical bottom line consensus that I think the parties can agree upon. And I think that's where the operative focus of much of the activity could end up being, in terms of actual results, as opposed to actual results towards denuclearization, per se," he said.

Besides the United States and North Korea, the other countries involved in the six party talks include China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.