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US games under North Korea's 'nuclear cloud'
By Tang Liejun

QINGDAO, China - Not very long ago a powerful blast near North Korea's northern border with China shocked the whole world, even though North Korea claimed that it was part of its hydroelectric program. Whether North Korea's claim was reliable or not, the cloud caused by the explosion will not disappear from people's minds for quite some time. The blast prompted people to believe that North Korea is very close to possessing nuclear weapons, if it does not actually have one in hand already. Yet the main player in dismantling North Korea's nuclear project - the United States, which for long has taken it as its priority policy in East Asia to prevent North Korea from being nuclear-armed - appears strangely calm. When US Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked during a television interview for his opinion about the blast, he said North Korea's neighbors would be more concerned than the US.

If the neighbors referred to by the US are South Korea and Japan, there seems to be some credibility to Powell's remarks. South Korea has the unification cause in mind. A nuclear-armed North would be harder and more costly for the South to unite with (although it may be more attractive to South Korea as a nuclear-armed united Korea would be more powerful in Asia and the world). It is true that the North and South had a severe war with each other in the middle of the last century, but it is unlikely that North Korea would use nuclear weapons against fellow Koreans in the South, unless the existence of the North were threatened by a coalition attack by South Korea and the US, a scenario of little possibility to South Korea if the consequence of such an attack is considered.

Theoretically, Japan may feel threatened by a nuclear-armed North Korea as Korean people still have unhappy memories of Japan's brutal occupation of Korea early in the last century, and some years ago a missile launched by North Korea flew over Japan's territory, which astonished Japan. Yet a careful look at the situation will reveal no authentic threat to Japan by North Korea. Japan is one of the most powerful countries in the world in science and technology and its technological capability sometimes is even formidable to the US. Japan can make nuclear bombs within a short time. Its Self-Defense Force is armed to the teeth. And moreover, Japan's economy is the world's second-largest. If North Korea provocatively attacked Japan, Japan's retaliation would undoubtedly be destructive. Therefore, North Korea's nuclear threat to Japan does not have much real basis in fact.

Should China feel threatened? China now is North Korea's only ally in East Asia. It has a friendship treaty with North Korea and it supplies the country with what it needs most to survive in an extremely isolating world. China and North Korea joined hands in fighting against US-led United Nations troops in the early 1950s. Moreover, China is not a small country. Taking all the above into consideration, China will not be a target of North Korea's nuclear threat, at least within the foreseeable future.

And Russia? Russia also has good relationship with North Korea and now is that country's only advanced-weapons supplier. North Korea cannot threaten Russia with nuclear weapons as Russia's nuclear capability can compete with that of the US.

Can North Korea threaten the US? Compared with US military power (not to mention US nuclear capability), North Korea obviously cannot threaten the US even if it possesses some long-range rockets and even if it does have nuclear weapons. Now that North Korea is listed by the US as a rogue country and as part of the "axis of evil", survival has become its priority. No leader in North Korea would be so crazy as to provoke the US if the country wants to survive.

Pyongyang's dilemma
If the above statements are reasonable, it is not difficult to see that North Korea's nuclear program would only have defensive meaning rather than offensive meaning (this view has even been shared by Roh Moo-hyun, president of South Korea - a longtime close ally of the US). Thus the US strategy to dismantle North Korea's nuclear program without a promise of security or any economic incentive is clearly a coercive policy based mainly on its overwhelming military strength. This leaves North Korea only two choices to make: to give up the nuclear program without any guarantee of its security, or to become another Iraq. From North Korea's perspective, if it gives up its nuclear program without a security agreement, it would mean accepting an automatic "regime change", and if it refuses to give up its nuclear program, it might follow Iraq's example.

But even though North Korea's nuclear program is undeniably developed for defensive purposes, the potential impact on the world would be very serious as it may encourage many other countries to possess nuclear weapons, even including Japan. If more countries are armed with nuclear weapons, nuclear wars will be more likely. Hence the world would become more dangerous. Furthermore, if nuclear technology falls into the hands of terrorists, the whole world would be under the cloud of terrorism, a situation no country would like to see, especially the US, as it has experienced the most horrible terrorist attack of all. It is probably for this reason that the US succeeded in motivating North Korea's neighbors to join its efforts in dismantling North Korea's nuclear program, resulting in the six-party talks, in which China is also involved.

Obviously the six-party talks are a feasible way to end North Korea's nuclear program and thereby relieve the world of possible nuclear horrors as outlined above. However, the US has up to now refused to give North Korea any security promises or economic incentives, which North Korea needs badly to survive, in exchange for North Korea's total abandonment of its nuclear program, and there is still no sign that the US might change its approach. Instead the US keeps pressuring North Korea's neighbors to talk Pyongyang into complying with US demands and keeps asking North Korea to give up its nuclear project completely while at the same time listing North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" that should be eliminated. Not surprisingly, this situation has not been accepted by North Korea, which is fully aware that a similar strategy was used against Saddam Hussein by the US before it invaded Iraq.

The six-party smokescreen
When all measures the US has up to now taken toward North Korea are put together, a picture of the US policy becomes crystal-clear: giving North Korea no chance to exist. But if this is the US policy, what is its motive for getting involved in the six-party talks?

The fact is that the US has much to gain by participating in the talks. First, by doing so the US may impress on the world that it has some sincerity in negotiating with North Korea to end the nuclear crisis in a peaceful way. Second, the US may build more pressure on North Korea to make it comply with the US requirements (though possibly the US may also feel some pressure to make certain concessions to North Korea). Third, if North Korea is willing to comply with the US demands, other parties may share the economic aid if economic incentives are finally given to North Korea under international pressure. Fourth, if the talks fail, parties other than the US alone may also take some blame. Fifth, within the six-party framework the US can consolidate its ties with its allies South Korea and especially Japan and coordinate efforts with them. Sixth, the US may take control of the procedures and duration of the talk according to its needs (eg if Iraq still has not gained stability and if US forces are constrained there) and may choose whatever result it wants within the talks without being the only target of criticism. Seventh, the US may use the six-party talks to reduce China's vigilance on the movement and deployment of its military forces in the western Pacific Ocean close to Taiwan. Eighth, the United States can use the six-party talks (more precisely the North Korea crisis) to achieve its strategic purposes at a low diplomatic cost, such as the deployment of its missile defense system. With the above considerable foreseeable benefits, the US using a smokescreen like the six-party talks is too good to pass up.

Clearly, ending North Korea's nuclear crisis or even eliminating "evil" is not the ultimate goal of the US. What the US really wants, and is exploiting the North Korea "crisis" to achieve, is to deploy sufficient military forces and resources in the western Pacific (especially close to Taiwan) so as to encourage Taiwan independence, thereby checking China's growth as a power that might compete with the US. Not long ago, the US and Japan were talking about using Japan's Shimoji Island as a military base. Only about 200 miles from Taiwan, Shimoji has a "runway capable of safely handling a fully loaded F-15C fighter jet", observed James Brooke in the New York Times.

If some day Taiwan becomes independent (or rather the 51st US state), it would not surprise the world. Yet it would reduce China to a state that may never be able to challenge the US. If that day comes, obviously the US should be grateful to North Korea, for it has created a perfect smokescreen for the US to be well positioned to diminish China.

Tang Liejun teaches English at Qingdao University, Qingdao city, Shandong province, China.

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Dec 4, 2004
Asia Times Online Community

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