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     Aug 30, 2008
Pyongyang plays a wild card
By Donald Kirk

WASHINGTON - The timing of Pyongyang's announcement that North Korea intends to resume its development of nuclear warheads was either uncannily brilliant, or incredibly dumb.

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 front.

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 Nations delegation.
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.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

If it ain't broke, don't fix it (Aug 29, '08)

US 'terrorizes' Pyongyang
(Aug 14, '08)

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Aug 28, 2008)


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