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North Korea—Beyond the Point of No Return?

In its initial reaction to North Korea's apparent nuclear test, the Bush administration indicated it would seek the strongest possible sanctions...

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In its initial reaction to North Korea’s apparent nuclear test, the Bush administration indicated it would seek the strongest possible sanctions against Pyongyang at the UN Security Council but was not considering taking military action on its own, at least for now.

Yet some independent analysts predict that the test will strengthen the position of administration hawks, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, who have strongly opposed bilateral talks with North Korea in favor of a strategy of escalating unilateral and international pressure designed to weaken and ultimately bring down the regime.

“Cheney and his supporters see negotiating with North Korea as the worst idea possible, because any meaningful discussion, let alone any agreement, with the regime would extend [its] lifespan,” said John Feffer, a Korea specialist with Foreign Policy In Focus, a progressive think tank in Washington, DC.

“With this test, they can now argue that North Korea has gone past the point of no return, and the only ethical option is to squeeze it until it collapses,” he added.

Feffer and a number of other analysts, however, believe that such an approach remains unrealistic, particularly because China and South Korea, while willing to impose stronger sanctions than they have considered in the past, will likely oppose measures that would increase the possibility of regime collapse.

“The question is really whether the Bush administration will want to persist in what has been a failed approach or will combine inevitable sanctions with the possibility of moving back to the negotiating table,” said Alan Romberg, a Korea specialist at the Henry L. Stimson Center.

Given the Bush administration’s previous rejection of Chinese and South Korean appeals to engage Pyongyang, however, Romberg said he was not optimistic. “The likelihood is that there won’t be progress [in negotiations] between now and the end of the Bush administration,” he said. “The North’s decision to test was importantly based on that calculation.”

North Korea’s underground test came just six days after Pyongyang publicly announced that it intended to conduct a nuclear test.

Pyongyang’s actions came as little surprise to a number of policy experts here, including former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who had warned that such a test was likely if Washington continued to rebuff appeals for direct talks after Pyongyang conducted a series of missile tests in July. The administration not only failed to heed those appeals, but also began planning to add to the financial sanctions it imposed last November against Pyongyang’s alleged money-laundering and counterfeiting activities by implementing new sanctions designed to isolate North Korea from much of the global banking system.

Pyongyang had demanded that Washington lift the first set of sanctions as a condition for returning to the so-called “Six-Party Talks”-negotiations involving North and South Korea, Russia, China, Japan, and the United States-which had in September 2005 reached agreement in principle that North Korea would abandon its nuclear programs in return for a far-reaching aid package and security guarantees. Despite entreaties from China and South Korea, which both condemned the North’s missile tests and imposed milder sanctions of their own to underline their disapproval of Pyongyang’s behavior, Washington refused to lift the sanctions or to engage in direct talks.

During the past week, China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan all joined with Washington in warning Pyongyang against conducting a test. The UN Security Council added its voice last Friday, expressing “deep concern” about Pyongyang’s stated intent and noting that a test “would bring universal condemnation.”

But the North appears to have concluded that it had nothing to lose by going ahead.

“North Korea’s final goal is survival, and a test is their final option,” Ahn Yinhay, a Korea University professor in Seoul, told the Washington Post after last week’s announcement of Pyongyang’s intention to test. “Given the current situation-the enormous pressure from the United States’ hardline policy-the North Koreans may think they have no other means to try to get out of this deadlock. They may think they have nothing else to lose.”

Whether or not Pyongyang miscalculated-as many U.S. experts believe it has-remains to be seen.

The Bush administration, which has received strong backing from Japan, clearly hopes that international reaction, particularly from what its UN ambassador, John Bolton, has referred to as Pyongyang’s “protectors” on the Security Council-China and Russia-will go along with far-reaching financial and related sanctions to punish and weaken the regime. Washington’s most ambitious hopes include a Security Council resolution that would authorize searching ships coming into and going out of North Korea for nuclear- or missile-related equipment or technology consistent with Washington’s Proliferation Security Initiative.

Bush appeared to be laying the foundation for such an approach in his initial reaction to the nuclear test. Calling it a “threat to international peace and security”-the phrasing normally reserved for invoking Chapter VII of the UN Charter that authorizes military force to back up Security Council demands-Bush stressed that he was at least as concerned about the dangers posed by Pyongyang’s proliferation record as by any direct threat that its now-demonstrated nuclear capability could pose to the United States.

“The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States,” he said in a White House statement, in which he also noted that North Korea was already “one of the world’s leading proliferators” of missile technology. “And we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action,” he added.

Many U.S. analysts believe that Washington will gain support for sanctions, though not as far-reaching as it would like, particularly given China’s opposition to measures that it thought would cause Pyongyang’s downfall.

“There will be sanctions, but the question is how serious they will be,” said Scott Bruce, an expert at the California-based Nautilus Institute. “For Beijing, the only thing scarier than a North Korea with nuclear weapons is a nuclear North Korea in a state of collapse,” he added, noting that China had followed its harsh condemnation of Pyongyang after the test with an appeal for negotiations.

“North Korea’s situation is indeed threatening, but there’s not a lot the United States and other countries can do without courting the destruction of the regime, which no one, except the United States and maybe Japan, wants,” according to Don Oberdorfer, chairman of the U.S. Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

China’s role will be vital, too, says Romberg of the Stimson Center. “China is going to want to express its anger very clearly, but it will not want to cut off the diplomatic process, which represents, in most people’s view, the only way forward, and South Korea will adopt a similar position,” according to Romberg. “They will take harsher action than they have to date, but they will also want to preserve the diplomatic option.”

“A key point is whether North Korea will now feel it has demonstrated enough strength to move back to the table even while U.S. financial sanctions remain in place. That shouldn’t be ruled out, and if the North is really prepared to sit down even in this new situation and negotiate seriously on denuclearization of the peninsula . there is some prospect for getting unstuck.”

Jim Lobe is a contributing writer to Right Web (rightweb.irc-online.org) and the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service.


Jim Lobe, "North Korea--Beyond the Point of No Return?" Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, October 10, 2006).

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