Iraq, North Korea, and the U.S. Nuclear “…Or Else”
By Col. Dan Smith (Ret.) January 13, 2003 Editor : Tom Barry, Interhemispheric Resource Center ( IRC )

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Mohamed ElBaradei, Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is a busy diplomat. In Iraq, as part of the UN effort to determine the extent of Baghdad’s weapons of mass destruction program, his inspectors are looking at facilities that have been or may be associated with nuclear weapons development. Simultaneously, almost halfway around the globe, he is trying to persuade North Korea to reverse course by readmitting IAEA monitors and re-freezing its nuclear weapons complex. As he addresses the immediate questions of each country’s nuclear efforts and status, he also must finesse the U.S. threat–the inverted U.S. “or else” should either country continue to defy the international community.

The puzzle facing ElBaradei and the world is why the United States seems bent on war with a country (Iraq) in which inspectors have virtually free rein to act. Simultaneously the U.S. is pushing for extended diplomacy with a country (North Korea) that has expelled IAEA inspectors, announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), disabled observation cameras, and is in the process of restarting is plutonium producing nuclear reactor. In Iraq, IAEA inspectors are trying to pinpoint how far Saddam Hussein moved in his efforts to get a nuclear weapon in the past four years.

After a short six weeks, according to ElBaradei, no “smoking gun” has been found. This doesn’t mean that Saddam might not have been trying, but the lack of any discoveries in any category of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons suggests that the Bush administration’s rhetoric on forcing Saddam to disarm (revised from the more drastic regime change) will find zero resonance among countries in the region that would most be affected by war.

Three close U.S. regional allies–Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey–along with Syria (which voted for the UN Security Council Resolution demanding Iraq admit and cooperate with inspectors or face serious consequences) reportedly are consolidating efforts to prevent a war against Iraq. Given that Washington regards Turkey (a NATO ally) and Jordan as necessary staging bases for two of three possible fronts against Iraqi forces, their efforts to seek a nonviolent resolution to the U.S.-Iraq crisis highlight the prevailing anti-war sentiment in the region. Negotiations Possible with Another Axis Nation Meanwhile, in Northeast Asia, South Korea has emerged as a mediator between the U.S. and North Korea in another “energy crisis.”

Although Washington stresses that a diplomatic solution with Pyongyang remains possible, the Bush administration refused to enter direct discussions–let alone negotiations–right up to the January 7 convening of the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TRCOG) that harmonizes Japanese, South Korean, and U.S. policy toward North Korea. Seoul, for its part, has favored some form of pre-arranged, carefully choreographed reciprocal actions that would bring the North back into compliance with its IAEA and NPT obligations in exchange for renewed U.S. commitments not to invade the North and to resume fuel oil deliveries to generate electricity. Washington has insisted on North Korea’s IAEA compliance, and U.S. oil shipments would simply restore one element of the 1994 Agreed Framework. Agreeing to Seoul’s plan, then, would cost the U.S. nothing while North Korea would have to revert to the status quo ante with respect to its nuclear program.

South Korea was expected to present specific proposals at a bilateral meeting preceding the January 7 TRCOG gathering. Although it did not make such a proposal, the very fact that Seoul publicly asserted a mediating role for itself apparently gave Washington policymakers pause about making new demands on the North. After all, it is South Korea, not the United States, that is most at risk should North Korea lash out militarily.

Seoul’s reported outline for restarting the dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea seemed to follow ElBaradei’s prescription for what must occur. Speaking of North Korea, he said: “I think the message is: You take the first step, you come into compliance, and then all the doors will be open. We are ready to negotiate with you. We are ready to discuss with you.”

Two Steps Back With Russia weighing in against calls for new sanctions or further isolation of North Korea, the Bush administration took two steps back from its January 7 hard line. First, while insisting that it would not negotiate any quid pro quo, Washington said it would consider face-to-face talks with Pyongyang. The January 9-11 discussions in Sante Fe, NM between North Korean UN representatives and Bill Richardson, the Clinton-era U.S. ambassador to the UN, explored how to get direct talks started.

Moreover, Secretary of State Colin Powell left open the possibility for dialogue on some type of agreement that, while codifying President’s Bush’s “no invasion” pledge, would not be a formal nonaggression pact. Finally, during a January 12 visit to Seoul, the Bush administration’s point man on Korea, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, reportedly said: “Once we get beyond nuclear weapons, there may be opportunities with the U.S., with private investors, with other countries to help North Korea in the energy area.”

By any measure, North Korean actions since October are more direct challenges to international norms than anything Iraq has done over the same period. The chief U.S. complaint about Iraq is that Saddam Hussein cannot be trusted to adhere to UN Security Council demands that he give up his ambitions to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Yet by expelling IAEA inspectors, restarting its dormant graphite nuclear plants, covertly attempting to develop a uranium enrichment program, and threatening to resume long-range missile development, Kim Jong Il has also demonstrated a readiness to ignore international agreements. But unlike Baghdad, with whom Washington has no agreements, Pyongyang claims that the United States broke its promises under the 1994 Agreed Framework–i.e., the United States has failed to act on instituting normal diplomatic relations, has fallen behind schedule in constructing two light water nuclear reactors, has cut off promised fuel oil deliveries, and has not removed North Korea from the list of terrorist states.

Moreover, the North Koreans believe they are on Washington’s nuclear “hit list.” For North Korea, all this suggests that the way forward is to revive and strengthen the Agreed Framework. Nonproliferation of nuclear material is the main U.S. goal. This means that Pyongyang’s ability to process either plutonium (from its current nuclear complex) or enriched uranium (from the promised light water nuclear reactors) has to be completely curtailed. Electricity generation–and distribution–is the related North Korean goal, a point acknowledged by Kelly in his Seoul remarks.

The optimum solution is to fund construction of non-nuclear power generating plants, including hydro-electric plants where feasible, and a modern electricity grid that efficiently distributes power across the whole of North Korea. Beyond removing a great worry about North Korea’s ability to produce materials suitable for its own nuclear weapons, this approach would neutralize fears that Pyongyang might, at some future time, try to sell fissile material to other states seeking to develop nuclear weapons–or to terrorist groups.

But if the light water reactor project is completed, the alternative is a supply and monitoring/verification system in which fissile materials are sent in and then retrieved for reprocessing outside of North Korea. North Korea’s Preemptive Move Another of North Korea’s main concerns is security. By linking Iraq and North Korea in the “axis of evil” and beating the war tocsin against Iraq, Bush forced Pyongyang into a preemptive posture in anticipation of what Washington would do after the Iraqi crisis moves from the top of the foreign policy agenda. Pyongyang, like Baghdad, is intent on regime survival and international acceptance, so it can be expected to continue pressing for a nonaggression pact with the United States, perhaps even as the ultimate quid pro quo for ending nuclear weapons development. (And of course, unlike Iraq with regard to its neighbors, North Korea can inflict enormous damage should war erupt on the peninsula, a fact not lost on the South.)

A step forward in this regard might be to replace the armistice between North Korea and the UN command with a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. In the end, both the Iraqi and North Korean situations are about energy. With Iraq, it is about reliable access to cheap oil for the United States and its allies. With North Korea, it is about a reliable source of cheap power for that country’s needs.

By any calculation, war in either place would be much more costly in human lives and material destruction than allowing the diplomatic process to fully play out. Washington can raise or lower the temperature depending on what it does next, not only directly with North Korea but in how well it listens to the serious reservations of allies about attacking Iraq without a smoking gun. If the latter stand-off ends peacefully with Baghdad in acceptable compliance with UN resolutions, it will augur well for Korea. If Baghdad and President Saddam’s regime are in ruins, North Korea may well decide it has nothing to lose by pressing ahead with unregulated nuclear weapons development, missile tests, and a more aggressive posture on the peninsula. If the latter happens, the odds for a new Korean war will increase dramatically.

(Dan Smith < > is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at ) is a retired U.S. army colonel and Senior Fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.) Weekly multilateralism / unilateralism analysis via our Progressive Response ezine. This page was last modified on Wednesday, April 2, 2003 12:05 PM Contact the IRC’s webmaster with inquiries regarding the functionality of this website. Copyright © 2002 IRC. All rights reserved.

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