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Living with a nuclear North Korea
By Ehsan Ahrari

As evidence mounts that North Korea already possesses nuclear weapons, United States President George W Bush's entire machismo about disallowing the possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by radical regimes faces a serious challenge.

The source of a key nuclear weapons report on North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons is Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, the father of its nuclear weapon, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, who has admitted selling his nation's secret nuclear weapons technology. North Korea, Libya and Iran are the nations he reportedly named as having received nuclear technology. He is also reported to have told his Pakistani interrogators that he had seen three nuclear devices during one of his visits to North Korea.

Strangely enough, no serious question about the credibility of that assertion was raised at a time when Dr Khan's claim was publicized early this year, nor was it questioned while US Vice President Dick Cheney was visiting East Asia recently. Perhaps the silence was due to the fact that Khan's claims were exactly what the US wanted to hear.

Through Cheney's visit to Asia, the US sought to convey to the world that it is serious about negotiating with North Korea. However, in the Asia-Pacific region in general, no one can forget that Bush, after raising the level of rhetoric during the past two years about his resolve to disallow possession of WMD radical regimes, has done nothing to restart the negotiations, even after the inconclusive end of six-party talks with North Korea. Aside from Pyongyang and Washington, the other four parties are China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

What is especially disconcerting about possible possession of nuclear weapons by North Korea is the potential that Pyongyang would sell those devices to a terrorist group like al-Qaeda. As preposterous as this suggestion sounds in principle, no US president can sit around cavalierly and do nothing regarding such a potential threat. More to the point, if Japan and South Korea were to become fully convinced that North Korea is armed with nuclear weapons, they might start insisting on developing their own respective minimum credible deterrence, thereby initiating a nuclear arms race in East Asia.

The present situation, though, says nothing about Bush's extant policy options regarding North Korea. The fact that he has already insisted on the possibility of invoking preemptive military actions against a nuclear-armed "rogue" state is on everyone's minds. The question is when would that option become a live one for the US. The answer: it depends on what happens next when the US approaches North Korea's main interlocutor, China, on the issue. Washington remains hopeful that the leaders in Beijing might be able to use their influence on North Korea to persuade the leadership to be reasonable and begin dismantling its nuclear weapons programs, in return for energy, economic and other compensation.

Exit Dick, enter Jong-il
Just after Cheney left China on April 18, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il came calling, and China must have received the latest policy positions by both sides. The next round of Beijing-sponsored six-party talks is expected to take place some time before July, but a date has not been set. The only sure thing is that talks will continue.

In all likelihood, diplomacy will be given a chance between now and next January, when a new US president assumes office. However, considering that North Korea remains highly suspicious of Bush, the chances of any diplomatic breakthroughs are minimal.

Ironically, Bush would want Kim to believe him when he tells the Pyongyang regime and the world that he wants to resolve the nuclear conflict peacefully. However, Kim also knows that if he were to give up his nuclear option, his regime would become highly vulnerable to the preemption option in the next four years, especially if Bush remains in office.

So, from North Korea's perspective, only a change of regime in Washington - from Bush to John Kerry - would provide Kim with adequate, though not necessarily sufficient, guarantees to give up the nuclear program.

The trouble with the nature of the relationship between the US and North Korea is that one can envision a Kerry administration taking a hard look at the preemption option, possibly during his first term, as did president Bill Clinton in 1994. Kim also remembers that Clinton reality quite vividly. While Kerry and Bush differ in some regards on the approach to North Korea, Kerry might appear preferable, but certainly would not be a dream candidate for Pyongyang.

If Kim, indeed, has developed nuclear weapons, the likelihood of his totally abandoning his nuclear program - a la South Africa - are slim-to-none. Thus, the world had better get ready to live with a nuclear North Korea, unless the US decides to give nuclear brinkmanship a chance. The international community also remembers, or should, that in the last military conflict involving the Korean Peninsula, China was not a neutral party. And this time as well, China is fully engaged in the six-party talks.

In the final analysis, the international community might have to determine whether nuclear brinkmanship is a feasible option, the alternative being living with a nuclear North Korea.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.

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Apr 28, 2004

Talks aside, N Korea won't give up nukes (Mar 2, '04)

North Korea chooses guns over butter (Apr 1, '04)

Pakistan nuclear aces win the day (Feb 6, '04)


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