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The Korean peninsula: a grim place, a bad time.



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Perspective

Wednesday 3 September 2003

Richard Broinowski, former Australian Ambassador to Republic of Korea

 

The Korean Peninsula - a Grim Place, a Bad Time  

 

The six-nation talks that took place in Beijing from 27 to 29 August on the situation on the Korean Peninsula were a failure. There was no communique or agreement to meet again. North Korea remained ambivalent about whether it already had nuclear weapons, and adamant that it would not dismantle its uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing projects. It described as 'a blatant interference in its internal affairs and an infringement of its sovereignty' American demands to inspect its nuclear facilities. 

 

For its part, the United States side refused to countenance North Korean demands for a non-aggression treaty, guarantee that it would not seek a regime change in Pyongyang, or to give any indication that it would be prepared to resume economic assistance under the Agreed Framework Arrangements of 1994. 

 

The Japanese, Russian, Chinese and South Korean delegates lobbied North Korea both at the plenary and from the sidelines to give up their nuclear weapons program, but without success. 

 

As a result, the Agreed Framework brokered by President Clinton is all but dead. The Japanese, South Korean and American partners were committed under it to build two nuclear power reactors in North Korea, but they indicated that when they meet in late September, they will probably postpone construction indefinitely, even if North Korea should relinquish its nuclear weapons aspirations in the meantime. 

 

Apart from American and North Korean obduracy, the situation is an early result of a deeper and more far-reaching malaise, one based on a new war-fighting doctrine constructed by Washington. Until the advent of the Bush Administration in 2001, the world depended for its nuclear sanity on the collective security guaranteed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nations acknowledged that a nuclear war must never be fought, and accepted the bargain that the nuclear haves would promise to disarm if the nuclear have-nots promised neither to make nor acquire their own nuclear weapons. The system was far from perfect, with Israel, India and Pakistan being the main renegades, but it was the best hope to to avoid nuclear armagedon. And, until it became obvious that the Americans did not intend to honour their commitments under the Agreed Framework, North Korea stayed in the non-proliferation fold. 

 

Now President Bush has negated the system by imposing a counter-proliferation doctrine, in which the US will deploy a flexible mix of supply-side export controls, deterrence, coercive diplomacy, global military superiority and the preventive use of military force. The US no longer intends to manage its relations with rising regional powers through arms controls or universal disarmament. Instead, it will improve its own nuclear capabilities, and deny all weapons of mass destruction, plus most conventional weapons to those outside a preferred circle of friendly states. 

 

Since the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks, Bush has linked the 'war on terrorism' and homeland security with his counter-proliferation approach. 'Rogue' states like Iran and North Korea are seen as enabling, guiding or equipping transnational terror networks. But why Kim Jong Il would export nuclear weapons or their components for ideological reasons is not obvious. He shares none of the religious fanaticism that drives Islamic terrorists. And by exporting such components (as opposed to rocketry) to loose cannons in other conflict zones for mere cash would risk detection and the swift elimination of his regime. By leaving open the possibility of arranging a nuclear diversion through DPRK-controlled agents abroad - the bomb in the suitcase scenario - he could conceivably distract a United States hell-bent on regime change in Pyongyang. 

 

The situation is not yet bad enough for this to be more than a possibility. But North Korea sees the US threat against it growing, and remains obdurate. Maybe the United States Administration will have the wit to engineer an 'ice-breaker' - for example, resumption of missing-in-action missions from the Korean War, or further Congressional visits to Pyongyang. Either would encourage North Korea to talk further, even leading back to reconstruction of the Agreed Framework. Elements in the western press, including in Australia, are given to calling Kim Jong Il irrational, unpredictable or insane. But he is none of these things. As Japan's deputy chief cabinet secretarty, Shinzo Abe, observed when he accompanied Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Pyongyang last September, Kim is highly rational - gori-teki. Maybe with his rationality and American restraint, the situation can be resolved short of military action, in which tens if not hundreds of thousands of Korean civilians would be the main losers.  

 

Guests on this program:

 

Richard Broinowski  

Richard Broinowski is a former Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea and an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Media and Communication in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney