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Jasper Becker on North Korea

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Jasper Becker, author of Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea, wrote an unnerving op-ed which appeared in the Wall Street Journal this morning. Becker’s book takes readers into North Korea, one of the most secretive countries in the world, exposing the internal chaos, blind faith, rampant corruption, and terrifying cruelty of its rulers. Check out his editorial below about the current situation in North Korea, which detonated its first nuclear test on Sunday night.

North Korea has now become the third country after Pakistan and India to become a nuclear power since the end of the Cold War. We can now be confident that many other countries will follow starting with Iran. Both the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which was supposed to stop this and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna which was designed to enforce it will join the League of Nations as dangerous failures. That is the good news.

The bad news is that no one has spent enough time trying to create any sensible alternatives. That is why the major powers are now going to be thrown into utter confusion. Expect to see a lot of angry bluster but no coherent actions that will lead to a solution.

The United States has already tried the obvious alternatives first by invading Iraq which no one can seriously term a success. And secondly by trying to push through a drastic revision of the NPT at a month long conference held last year. All sensible ideas were thrown out by Moscow, Beijing and a coterie of third world dictators.

Saddam Hussein had found it absurdly easy to run rings around the IAEA. He had three parallel nuclear research programs and was a year away from testing a bomb when he invaded Kuwait. Even after the extent of his research program was brought to light no amount of research by the UN weapons inspectors could ever dispel the suspicion that somewhere he still possessed weapons of mass destruction.

No matter what the inspectors found, it was enough for Saddam Hussein to bluff that he still had more hidden away to remain a threat. And once the sanctions regime was undermined by China, Russia, Germany, France and many others, there was nothing to stop him trying again.

The cruel reality is that the history of nuclear weapons shows that while it is relatively easy to steal or buy nuclear secrets, it is impossible for an outside agency to prove that another country is developing a bomb.

For half a century the United States lavished huge efforts on trying to spy on the Soviet Union’s multiple nuclear, chemical biological weapons programs but repeatedly got it wrong. The CIA failed, for instance, to discover that the Russians had a second parallel network of nuclear production facilities. The CIA was equally wrong footed by China when it tested a bomb in 1964 and then by Pakistan and India when they exploded nuclear devices eight years ago.

It is not enough to have well founded suspicions when the international community demands unimpeachable evidence before it acts. The fact that the US allegations about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq proved ill-founded has raised the barrier to an all but impossible level.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq should have served to deter Iran and North Korea from pursuing their nuclear weapons. When US and allied troops swept through Iraq, it looked promising: Pakistan closed Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan’s nuclear supermarket, Iran was alarmed and Kim Jong Il went into hiding for months, fearing he would be the next target.

When Washington said it was ready to start bombing North Korea, China took it so seriously that President Hu Jintao even contemplated launching a pre-emptive invasion of North Korea. Instead he held back and then persuaded the Americans to settle for what became the fruitless six party talks. As the US forces became bogged down in dealing with the Iraqi insurgency, Kim Jong Il was emboldened to become the first country to walk away from the NPT and expel inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In response, the South Koreans and Chinese not only urged more sympathy and understanding but gave North Korea more aid and money. Even after Kim Jong Il walked out the talks last autumn, President Hu Jintao responded by signing commercial deals with Pyongyang. Chinese companies negotiated a dozen 50-year concessions to exploit North Korea’s oil and gas deposits, re-open iron ore and gold mines and repair ports, harbors, power stations and railroads. This only inspired South Korean companies to push their own government harder to develop ties with the North.

The folly of these actions will cost China dear in many ways. East Asia’s security framework is based on a deal which has now fallen apart. The United States prevented South Korea, Taiwan and Japan from acquiring their own nuclear deterrents and removed its own nuclear weapons from the region. In response China committed itself to preventing North Korea from becoming a nuclear power.

Monday’s successful test is the largest setback to China’s international diplomacy for 15 years. Beijing has become, as Mao might have put it, another paper tiger and the price will be a much more assertive Japan determined to ensure its own security. This will suit the new hawkish Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, very well.

President Roh’s belief that he could get somewhere by undermining US global proliferation policies and appeasing Kim Jong Il has been exposed as deluded vanity. In next year’s presidential elections, his party’s candidate now seems certain to be rejected. Yet whatever the electorate decides, it will not change the fact that Kim Jong Il can now blackmail the rich southerners for as much as he wants and for as long as he wants. He only has to hint at war, as he did on Sunday by creating an incident on the DMZ, for Seoul to panic.

The best outcome of this crisis would be a strong UN resolution leading to such tough sanctions that North Koreans would rise up and overthrow Kim Jong Il. Since UN members have rewarded President Roh’s foreign minister Ban Ki-moon for his failures by making him the next secretary general of the United Nations, real sanctions seem unlikely.

What might follow is another resolution like the one agreed after North Korea test-fired missiles in July. It stops member states from trade which might be used to further develop the missile program, a restriction so vague that it will make no difference. North Korea only has to announce a fresh humanitarian emergency, as it did this summer when there were floods, for food aid to come pouring in again. If diplomats were already horrified by fears of civil unrest and starving refugees crossing into China, imagine what they will say about domestic chaos breaking out in a state armed with nuclear weapons.

China has already shown how little influence it has on North Korea and to make punitive sanctions work, Beijing would have to shoulder most of the responsibility for enforcing them. The UN is in no position to monitor China in this. Moreover Hu Jintao, a cautious man, is not likely to carry implementation very far and see North Korea follow East Germany into oblivion because that would damage the Chinese Communist Party’s own status. More likely is that after the fuss has died down China will be tempted to secretly increase payments to Kim Jong Il in the hopes of keeping him quiet.

Yet despite this, the North Korean crisis is also a godsend for the embattled Bush administration. No one can say that it has not tried patient diplomacy for three fruitless years. It even guaranteed North Korea’s security with a fresh letter on the eve of the test.

Washington is now in a stronger position to persuade Russia, France and China to agree to forceful measures against Iran, a far greater threat to international peace than North Korea. President Bush can regain the initiative lost after the Iraq invasion and begin pushing through a drastic overhaul of the NPT machinery. Otherwise everyone will have to live with a future where any state, even one as impoverished and isolated as North Korea, can go nuclear and build its own arsenal of missiles. From there it is just a short step to imagining a nuclear free for all where Al Qaeda or some other group can take over another Afghanistan – Somalia would be a possibility – and threaten the world. Buying off religious fanatics will be an altogether different proposition than Kim Jong Il.


If you want to learn more check out Gordon Corera’s interview with Dina Kahn, daughter of AQ Khan.

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