US policy on the nuclear crisis with North Korea may become both more active and stricter in the wake of President Bush’s re-election and the changes unveiled in his administration. If Washington decides to up the pressure on Pyongyang, either to force North Korea to capitulate, or to bring about regime change in the country, tension could mount rather than subside, causing an unnecessary escalade in the conflict. Defusing the crisis, on the other hand, requires greater flexibility and creativity on the part of the US, which is indeed what South Korea, China and Russia have been demanding for some time.
The analysis first lists the signs which suggest that the second Bush administration may take a harder line with respect to North Korea. Secondly, it argues that this toughening of policy will exacerbate the differences with a number of Washington’s partners (South Korea, China and Russia) and that this deepened disagreement is far from positive. Finally, the work underlines the fact that this new policy is fraught with risk, since at best it will serve to maintain the status quo (which benefits North Korea, as we have seen in the last two years) and at worst could trigger aggressive reactions from Pyongyang to what might eventually prove to be real sanctions, albeit indirect or veiled ones.
Washington’s policy with regard to the North Korea nuclear crisis may become at the same time more active and stricter in the second Bush administration. A more active approach would undoubtedly be positive, since north-eastern Asia has been a neglected front of US foreign policy in recent years. In contrast, taking a tougher line would certainly be negative, since it would exacerbate the already considerable differences between Washington and Seoul, Beijing and Moscow, by implying, at best, maintenance of the status quo (which would enable North Korea to increase its nuclear arsenal) and, at worst, a greatly heightened risk of open conflict, especially if such a policy is manifested by the application of sanctions and if Pyongyang reacts aggressively to them.
Towards a more active and tougher policy?
At the end of 2004, the recent changes in the Iraq situation (end of the Fallujah offensive, proximity of elections, etc) and, above all, the calls to tackle the serious danger already represented by North Korea seem to suggest that the second Bush administration may begin to change its focus, although certainly slowly, towards north-eastern Asia.
In recent interviews (The New York Times, 6 December 2004; El País, 12 December 2004), the Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed El Baradei, asserted that he is ‘sure’ that North Korea has reprocessed the 8,000 fuel bars that it had stored since 1994 and obtained plutonium for some six nuclear weapons. El Baradei added that North Korea is the biggest challenge currently facing the IAEA, because, with no inspections possible, it has not only reprocessing capacity but also access to the nuclear fuel cycle.
Furthermore, there are a number of signs that a tougher line may be taken with North Korea by the Bush administration. The appointment of Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State and the maintenance of Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary come alongside the appointment of Victor D. Cha, a professor of Korean origin from the University of Georgetown, well-known for his especially ‘hawkish’ stance on North Korea, as Director for Asia on the National Security Council. Indeed, there are rumours that Rice could appoint John Bolton, hitherto Under-Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, as her number two at the State Department.
The appointment of Cha and the possible designation of Bolton point to a tougher line. In a book published in 2003 (Nuclear North Korea. A Debate on Engagement Strategies, in the form of a conversation with D. Kang), Cha propounded that North Korea’s purpose is to endow itself with nuclear capacity and not that of increasing its negotiating powers with the international community, and that Washington’s objective should not be to reach an agreement with Pyongyang (impossible, according to Cha) but to prove that negotiation is impossible and prepare a coalition to punish it. As for Bolton, for some time he has been extolling the virtues of a three-phase strategy: talks, sanctions, bans and confiscations and, if the latter fail, preventive military attack.
The optimum strategy for Washington would be to promote sanctions through the UN Security Council, based on proposals either from the IAEA or from the US itself. However, China and Russia are opposed to sanctions and have even vetoed discussion of this matter by the Council. This opposition seems unlikely to waver.
Consequently, for the time being, Washington has chosen to implement two alternatives to these sanctions, both aimed at strangling the regime and even bringing it down: the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the North Korea Human Rights Act (NKHRA).
As is widely known, the PSI, launched in 2003 (in which 11 countries initially participated: Germany, Australia, Spain, the US, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and the UK, followed later by Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, Singapore and Turkey), is aimed at preventing sea, air or land traffic of weapons of mass destruction, their components or vehicles. In principle, it would allow the interception of North Korean ships and aircraft transporting illegal weapons, drugs (heroine and methamphetamines) or counterfeit currency, and the confiscation of their cargo. Some analysts are sceptical about how useful the PSI may be in the case of North Korea, due to the simple fact that China and South Korea are not taking part in the initiative.
As for the NKHRA, it was signed by President Bush last October and allocates funds for humanitarian aid and for the work of non-governmental organisations promoting ‘human rights, democracy, law enforcement and the development of a market economy’ in North Korea. Furthermore, the NKHRA will also serve to provide financial aid (and even political asylum in the US) to deserters and refugees and to break the regime’s news blockade, by distributing portable radios using mass parachute launches and increasing broadcasts in Korean by Radio Free Asia.
Furthermore, some information media believe that the Bush administration will increasingly insist on the need for joint and managed pressure to force North Korea to cooperate and to thereby obtain results in the six-way talks. In particular, defenders of neo-con positions consider that strong combined pressure on Pyongyang could bear fruit (capitulation or downfall).
In a recent interview (Prospect, December 2004; El País, 12 December 2004), the US Under-Secretary for Defence Paul Wolfowitz mentioned the need for an economic ‘hammer’ in North Korea’s case, saying that Washington’s Asian partners can do far more than the United States in this regard.
For experts not directly linked to the administration, the isolation, containment, stifling and downfall of the regime led by Kim Jong Il would be the only way to adequately deal with the nuclear crisis. The dilemma, then, would be between a nuclear North Korea and regime change. Arguments along these lines were expressed by Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, in The Weekly Standard magazine (29 November 2004), as follows: (1) it is highly unlikely that the North Korea nuclear option can be avoided only through talks or economic incentives; and (2) the nuclear crisis is inevitable as long as Kim Jong Il remains in power. Thus, Eberstadt’s conclusion was that the US’s final objectives should be regime change in North Korea and the consequent reunification of the Korean peninsula. Furthermore, the author suggested that the US should do everything in its power to overcome opposition from China and South Korea to this stance. This insistence on regime change and on pressure on China and South Korea was immediately supported by William Kristol, of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC).
Against this background, in an article published in the latest edition of The Washington Quarterly, Michael Horowitz, a researcher from Harvard University’s Olin Institute for Strategic Studies (created by Samuel Huntington at the end of the eighties), listed the various ways to reduce North Korean currency revenues, by controlling its arms, drugs and counterfeit currency exports and reducing emigrants’ remittances (and contraband activities) in Japan, and even foreign aid.
The statements by Eberstadt, Kristol and Horowitz are obviously aimed at taking advantage of the current situation (the transition between administrations and the interval prior to the next round of six-way talks) to influence the design of the new policy on North Korea.
All of these signs seem to lead to the same conclusion: we cannot rule out a toughening of US policy on North Korea during the second administration of President Bush.
Inevitable tensions with partners
South Korea’s view is clearly critical of the US and positions would be further distanced if Washington takes a tougher line. In recent visits to the US and a number of European countries, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun clearly expressed that there is no alternative to dialogue, that sanctions would be counterproductive and that a tougher policy on North Korea would have ‘serious repercussions’. In particular, during a visit to Los Angeles in mid-November, Roh said that the threat of force was inefficient as a negotiating tactic, that economic sanctions (including an embargo) are not desirable and that the nuclear crisis must be resolved within the framework of the six-way talks. In his visit to France in early December, Roh went even further and said that the hope of some western countries of bringing down the North Korean regime is naive (because there will be no such regime change) and dangerous (because it places the Pyongyang government on permanent alert).
China has also opposed a stranglehold on Pyongyang. Its reasons are strategic (avoid the downfall of the regime and the consequent loss of the buffer state between its own far eastern borders and US military forces on the peninsula) but they also respond to practical considerations relating to the current situation: Beijing believes, no doubt rightly, that a North Korea pushed towards the abyss is more dangerous than one that possesses nuclear weaponry.
As for Russia, last September’s summit between President Vladimir Putin and his South Korean colleague Roh Moo-hyun evidenced Moscow’s support for a peaceful solution to the North Korean crisis and Russia’s possible contribution to solving the Korean peninsula’s energy problems, through oil and gas pipelines linking Siberia and the eastern frontier of the Russian Federation with both Koreas. Furthermore, Russia has expressed an interest in connecting the Trans-Siberian Railway with the Trans-Korean line, currently under construction.
Japan, on the other hand, has said it would be willing to resort to sanctions if no solution is found to its dispute with Pyongyang over the whereabouts of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents during the seventies and eighties.
Results and risks
If Washington toughens its stance, two possible results can be expected. The first is that the status quo will be maintained. In this event, North Korea will continue to have time to increase its nuclear arsenal. In fact, the status quo in the last two years has served only for Pyongyang to build more nuclear bombs. What has happened, in short, is that from a situation (prior to October 2002) in which North Korea had one or two nuclear weapons, a frozen plutonium reprocessing programme and perhaps an emerging highly-enriched uranium programme, we now have a new situation (end of 2004) in which Pyongyang has around ten nuclear weapons, a reactivated programme for plutonium reprocessing and perhaps a relatively advanced programme for uranium enrichment.
The second scenario is that the pressure brought to bear through the PSI and NKHRA eventually makes its mark on North Korea’s leaders, in which case a reaction on their part which would increase tension cannot be ruled out. A nuclear test or medium-range missile launch would see the crisis escalate unnecessarily.
Conclusions: We cannot rule out the possibility that Washington, rather than making its position more flexible, might do exactly the opposite of what most analysts and governments consider necessary. If the US administration definitively decides to place a stranglehold on the Pyongyang regime, in the trust (albeit rather blind) that pressure will lead to its collapse, the solution to the nuclear crisis will probably come later rather than sooner.
Indeed, the framework of the six-way talks (which were defended tooth and nail by President Bush during the election campaign) could lose momentum, as South Korea, China and Russia see how the US distances itself increasingly from their positions. If Washington continues to oppose negotiating simultaneous measures and if it starts applying sanctions, Seoul, Beijing and Moscow may see how their efforts to find a negotiated solution ultimately fall on deaf ears.
Finally, this possible new policy by Washington may not merely delay the solution of the crisis sine die but it could also provoke a dangerous reaction from North Korea. If President Bush’s undertaking to be more multilateralist in his second mandate is sincere, and if it is true that the new Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is in favour of ‘realism’ in international relations, both must be more receptive to North Korea’s continental neighbours and, especially, tread carefully in what is after all no less than a serious nuclear crisis.
Senior Analyst (Asia-Pacific), Elcano Royal Institute, and professor of Applied Economics at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid