WASHINGTON - The timing of Pyongyang's announcement that North Korea intends to
resume its development of nuclear warheads was either uncannily brilliant, or
Coming in the midst of the Democratic national convention in Denver, the
statement from the North Korean Foreign Ministry had American officials
talking, but was barely noted after a brief flurry of reports that the North
had "suspended" the dismantlement of its nuclear program.
So much for that televised image of the blowing-up of the cooling tower at the
Yongbyon nuclear complex two months ago. And so much for the pronouncements
that North Korea had moved on to
the "next stage" of the nuclear agreement of February 2007, and would soon be
ready to get rid of its whole nuclear program.
To hear United States envoy Christopher Hill talk about it, once North Korea
had done with dismantlement, the program would be nearly impossible to
resuscitate. Hill may be proven right, but as Pyongyang has been making all too
clear, such talk is extremely premature.
The problem with the North's latest pronouncements, however, is that they've
been completely drowned out by the rhetoric this past week from Denver and
likely won't be heard next week either when the Republicans hold their
convention in St Paul, Minnesota.
Perhaps the North Koreans were thinking that if they announced that they'd
stopped disabling the complex at Yongbyon, strategists for the Democratic
presidential candidate, Barack Obama, would be hastily rewriting his acceptance
speech on Thursday night. Maybe Obama would want to put in some choice words of
criticism of President George W Bush for his failure to remove North Korea from
the US's list of nations sponsoring terrorism.
If that was the North Korean's thinking, the ruse failed. American voters just
aren't moved by the impasse over North Korea. As long as the protagonists stick
to a war of words, it's hard to make a campaign issue of US policy on that
But if the North Korean intention was to sneak in a few words on its nuke
program while the American public's mind was focused elsewhere, then the
announcement succeeded admirably. North Korea can go about reversing the
perceived progress engendered in recent months and then present Bush with a
full-blown nuclear crisis before he steps down near in January.
Then it will be up to Bush's successor to decide whether he's willing to go
through a serious escalation of tension on the Korean Peninsula while also
attempting to make good on promises to get out of Iraq. It's just possible that
Obama's first gesture as president would be to strike North Korea's name off
the terror list in a show of dedication to the peace process - and a slight at
Bush for having been so stubborn.
Whatever happens, though, North Korea is not going to submit to a process of
"verification" of what it's doing just appease the American perception of
what's meant by its promises to go "non-nuclear". As the North Korean Foreign
Ministry statement noted, the North is not about to yield to the "brigandish
demand" of the Americans and submit to a "house search" like those that
American troops conduct in Iraq.
The frankness of North Korea's refusal of an acceptable "verification protocol"
would appear to fly in the face of all the sweet talk between Hill and North
Korea's nuclear envoy, Kim Kye-gwan. It's always possible, however, that North
Korea is engaging in an enormous bluff - and is not actually intent on
rebuilding nuclear warheads.
Just look at the emphasis the North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman put on
the North's decision "to immediately suspend disabling nuclear activities". Did
he say anything about actually restarting the five-megawatt reactor at
Yongbyon? And did he even remotely threaten a follow-up to the 2006 test of an
underground nuclear device?
It's quite possible the announcement was timed strategically. But, even if the
North hasn't said or done quite the same thing before, the world is so used to
"crises" when it comes to the North's nukes that such statements will find only
a narrow audience.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice added to the feeling of nonchalance
surrounding the statement by remarking while in Israel about how clear the US
has been about "a verification mechanism that could assure the accuracy of the
statements that North Korea made in its declaration".
She said her people were "in discussions with the North Koreans" - an apparent
reference to a brief meeting in New York between Hill's handpicked successor as
nuclear envoy, Sung Kim, and a North Korean diplomat with the North's United
Such cliches simply underline the emptiness of the process - the unlikelihood
that Sung Kim will take the talks any further than Hill did or that anyone can
repair the damage. The real question, though, is what that process will convey
to Bush's successor, whether it's Obama or John McCain.
Obama is likely to get an overload of advice from Bill Richardson, the New
Mexico governor who once served as former president Bill Clinton' ambassador to
the UN and has visited North Korea.
Richardson, who supported Obama early in his quest for the nomination, has
visited Pyongyang several times and is likely to advise Obama to make good on
Bush's promise to take the North off the terrorist list. It's possible that
Richardson's reward may be appointment as secretary of state.
McCain, if elected, is sure to be tougher. He could be expected to demand
"verification" in more stentorian tones than Obama. Even so, it's more likely
that next week McCain, like Obama, will essentially ignore Korea.
Considering the depths of American non-concern, the North Koreans may conclude
the only way to attract attention is to test more long-range missiles, as they
did in early July 2006 three months before the nuclear test. That's assuming,
by the way, that North Korea is incapable of conducting a second nuclear test,
at least for a long time.
Were North Korea to go the route of more testing, and were McCain to be in the
White House, it's not hard to imagine him losing his temper and opting for a
preemptive surgical strike. Nothing short of a sequence of events on that scale
seems capable of eliciting more than a shoulder shrug from Americans as they're
showered with pledges and promises on pulling themselves out of hard times and
American troops out of the Middle East.
If North Korea wants to draw attention as a wild card, it's going to have to
come up with something more sensational than a mere decision to stop doing
whatever it was - or wasn't doing - about disabling its nukes. If there's one
legacy Bush doesn't need, it's that of the president who caved in to North
Korea's terrorist threats.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.