Kick around Korea
on the curious question of the North Korean nuclear affair
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South Korean marines take part in an exercise in the disputed Yeonpyeong area near the Yellow Sea
This affair is very odd. The North Koreans stepped up hawking its determination to produce weapons of mass destruction. Pyongyang's closest allies China and Russia expressed concern, albeit in conspicuously muffled tones. The North Koreans took this as a signal that they should go ahead with their ambitious nuclearisation programme. It would be imprudent for them to make enemies of those who can help them.
Clever conceits cannot hide the jagged edges of pax americana. Statesmen in the Middle East and Northeast Asia are peering into the past to provide templates to fit the most confusing present. The myriad theories of North Korean nuclear ambitions fly in the face of predictably unpredicted scenarios in which a nuclear holocaust engulfing Northeast Asia looms large.
There is an unquenchable quest for testing American imperialism by lesser powers. The collapse of the Soviet Union has overturned the sense of global equilibrium, has ushered in the unipolar world, but has not made the world a safer place. The world of Northeast Asian nuclear jitters threatens to spread beyond the volatile region. Everything must be compressed. The Central Intelligence Agency of the United States revealed about a year ago that North Korea supplied Syria with a nuclear reactor capable of producing enriched plutonium for the manufacturing of nuclear weapons. Iran, too, is suspected of collaborating with North Korea to develop its own nuclear programme. Pyongyang has made no secret of its capacity to produce fissile fuel for its nuclear reactor. There is conclusive evidence of a serious North Korean weaponisation programme, but there is also indication that Pyongyang has a long way to go before it is a fully-fledged nuclear power able to strike even its neighbours Japan and South Korea, let alone the US. The pertinent point is that North Korea's announcement this week that it would consider US threats to forcibly board its ships an act of war. And, that it is determined to step up its atomic bomb- making programme provides much dry tinder in Northeast Asia for Washington to be careless with matches.
The North Korean state-run weekly Tongil- Sinbo wrote that the US is currently deploying nuclear weapons in both South Korea and Japan. The paper ominously warned that North Korea is "completely within the range of the US nuclear attack and the Korean Peninsula is fast becoming an area where the chances of a nuclear war is the highest in the world." This is why ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong- Il shows no sign of relenting on advancing his country's nuclear programme. The real question the Americans should be asking themselves is will the Communist country pursue its nuclear ambitions in the event that Kim Jong-Il kicks the bucket?
North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in January 2003. It is under no obligation under international law to abide by its restrictions. US officials are insistent that Washington would not stand idly by. "North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons and the capacity to deliver those weapons through missiles is not going to be accepted by the neighbours as well the greater international community," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last Saturday during a visit to Canada.
This is, furthermore, about the worst possible time to try to foist hawkish American posturing on the international arena. As a result of the latest nuclear test, the US was able to obtain a United Nations Security Council resolution approved last Friday by the characteristically reticent Russia and China, which includes a mixture of financial and trade restrictions designed to choke off military development. Aside from a mandatory ban on arms exports, however, the steps are recommendations rather than requirements, so the impact depends on member states.
The initial popularity of US President Barack Obama was not so much the honeymoon so hyped by the media as a collective sigh of relief at the departure of ex- president George W Bush. The Bush presidency was ineluctably associated with failure in foreign policy. Pyongyang's nuclear test is the testing ground for Obama's policies. He cannot afford now to lose his nerve.
The world is willing to watch Obama do more closely than what he says. The Obama administration has said it will use it to order the Navy to request permission to inspect North Korean ships at sea suspected of carrying arms or nuclear technology, though it will not board them by force. If they refuse, as is likely, the US will track them and request that the country of arrival inspect them. Obama, however, has slim chance to assert his country's authority in the high seas. And, he has to work damn hard to restore some backbone to his invertebrate America badly broken by Bush.
The planned American action stops just short of the forced inspections that North Korea has insisted that it would regard as an act of war. "China will implement the resolution earnestly," said Qin Gang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. This for all intents and purposes could mean anything. Ironically, Obama will be putting into effect the harsh steps against Pyongyang advocated by Bush.
But there are rumblings afoot about how Pyongyang is being victimised for doing what countries such as India, Pakistan and Israel are doing without so much as a howdy-do from the West. Western powers, in concerted action, have long prevented the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, from voting on a motion to prevent Israel from utilising nuclear energy for military purposes. Anger over especially Pakistan and less vociferously India for testing their much more powerful nuclear weapons soon disintegrated. India is now regarded as a dependable regional power worthy of the West's trust.
Why the double standards? Why is North Korea, not to mention Iran, regarded as far more dangerous to world security than Israel? If anything, Israel is widely regarded as the more fearsome threat to world peace than either Iran or North Korea. It has been at war with its neighbours countless times since its creation in 1948, which are deemed untrustworthy by the US, even though it is Israel that has a long history of pursuing its expansionist aims in the Middle East through unscrupulous violence. Pakistan and India, too, have been at war more than once in the past half century and both acquired their nuclear arsenals on the pretext of defending themselves against each other.
Israel, not subject to IAEA safeguards and not even a signatory to the NPT, but recently outed by a US defence official as a member of the nuclear club, acts with impunity in defiance of international law, as do India and Pakistan. This would appear to justify the North Korean nuclear programme.
Against this backdrop, an increasing number of Arab, Muslim and Non-Aligned countries including Egypt, which is a signatory of the NPT, are stepping up their campaign for Israel to be subjected to the same rigorous rules of nuclear inspection as North Korea and Iran. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, all of them nuclear powers, have yet to issue any resolution concerning Israel like the one it issued this week on North Korea, or the ones it has issued concerning Iran. The dissent surrounding this hypocrisy can only swell. Perhaps this is the silver lining in the tizzy surrounding North Korea these days.
China and South Korea have extensive trade and economic relations with Pyongyang. Neither the Chinese nor the South Koreans want to see a further deterioration in the North Korean economy. Both China and South Korea have a vested interest in propping up the North Korean economy -- and they would do so regardless of Pyongyang's nuclear tests. Russia, too, would like to see a prosperous North Korea -- the country borders one of Russia's most economically dynamic and resource-rich regions -- the Russian Pacific zone. North Korea is a country with economic potential and its neighbours realise the fact all too well. The country is not only a potential source of cheap labour, but also a market for Chinese and Japanese goods.
One indicator to gauge prospects of the largely voluntary international sanctions agreed by China and Russia as Security Council members is the reactions of the Chinese, Russian and South Korean officials in the aftermath of the North Korean nuclear blasts. Although strongly worded statements were issued, they fell short of threatening economic sanctions and the new sanctions are voluntary.
Meanwhile, a desire for increased development aid, trade and economic assistance has been the main engine behind North Korea's desire to detonate a nuclear bomb. Observers note that Pyongyang wants to be taken seriously and being a nuclear power is one way of focussing world attention on its economic aspirations.
The hullabaloo this week that North Korea is threatening a nuclear war in the Korean Peninsula has hit the headlines, though the matter is far from being viewed unanimously around the world. Taken purely on its own terms, the North Korean claim raises many unanswered questions. My guess is that much more hot air will be generated concerning this chimera in the weeks to come.