Nuclear Logic

June 09, 1994|By BRUCE CUMINGS

Chicago -- Baffled by North Korea's defiance over the issue of nuclear weapons, most Western observers are convinced the latest crisis only bears out the ''irrationality'' of the regime. Yet there is a logic to Pyongyang's moves that has prevailed ever since March 1993 when it announced that North Korea was RTC withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That logic in the end could give it an edge in the current crisis.

The logic has three parts. First, Pyongyang does not want the outside world to know whether or not it has a bomb. Second, it wants to profit from the Clinton administration's inability to focus over time on any single foreign-policy issue. Third, it wants to play for time to gain allies on the issues that really concern it.

There are two key questions about the North Korean bomb: Can they make it, and can they use it?

If the International Atomic Energy Agency were allowed to verify the answers to these questions, it would probably discover that Pyongyang lacks the capability to turn reactor-grade plutonium into a usable weapon. With the mystery unraveled, North Korea would cease to command global interest. If, on the other hand, the IAEA determined that the North did possess this capability, Pyongyang would no longer be able to use the nuclear issue to extract concessions from Washington. In short, North Korea has a huge stake in sustaining the mystery and has therefore directed all its efforts at frustrating the IAEA search for reliable evidence that could resolve it.

Once North Korea gets the bomb, can it use it? Again, Pyongyang has managed to gain far more mileage from creating uncertainty on this issue than from making public announcements.

The nuclear deterrence that prevailed all during the Cold War gave stability to the nuclear rivalry: Both sides had the bomb, everyone knew it, and therefore neither could use it.

But for small states surrounded by enemies -- like North Korea -- the only alternative is the silent, enigmatic deterrent. This is the same deterrent Israel has used so effectively for the past 25 years. Its ambivalence on the nuclear issue has relieved its neighbors from having to match the program with a bomb of their own. And it has avoiding making blustering threats that few believed in, coming from a small state that would be obliterated by even one retaliatory strike.

Since its founding in the 1940s, North Korea has been single-minded in its conviction that the whole world is watching as it ''blazes the trail for socialism in the East.'' And from the Korean War through the 1968 Pueblo incident down to the current crisis, Pyongyang has found a way to bring itself to the world's attention. Yet Washington has always reacted as if it just discovered that there might be a problem on the Korean peninsula. The Clinton administration is no exception.

Washington's inattention has merely energized North Korea to wait for the proper moment -- such as talk of an impending invasion of Haiti -- to drive up to the brink once again. Far from raising the stakes of the conflict, each such crisis has yielded another concession to Pyongyang to get it to cease and desist. Whereupon it waits for the next inattentive moment to wring out another concession.

A larger goal drives this agenda. If Pyongyang can relieve the pressure on it this time with some small concession of its own, it will come close to carrying the North Korean ''bomb'' all the way to April 1995, when the non-proliferation treaty is scheduled for global review. At that point Pyongyang is betting that many countries (India and Pakistan for starters) will join it in questioning U.S. influence on and intelligence-sharing with the IAEA, a nominally independent body. With new allies, North Korea might even challenge Washington's ability to enlist the IAEA in its effort to surveil and police those regimes that used to be policed by Moscow, like Iraq and North Korea.

This, then, is the logic driving North Korea's allegedly irrational behavior. Unless and until North Korea withdraws fully from the non-proliferation treaty, a move it has carefully refrained from making so far, it is safe to assume the logic will remain operative. Only when the U.S. acknowledges the logic, rather than denying it, will Washington be freed to review its historic Korea policy from the bottom up and ultimately help resolve the issues that have bedeviled Koreans for the past half-century.

Bruce Cumings is professor of East Asian and international history at the University of Chicago, is author of ''Origins of the Korean War.'' He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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