Korean surprise

April 08, 2003|By Richard Halloran

LIKE A theater just before the play starts, North Korea has gone dark. The big questions: Why and what happens after the curtain goes up?

Kim Jong Il, the "Dear Leader" of the regime in Pyongyang, was reported late last week to have appeared in public for the first time in 50 days when he visited a medical college with four top generals. This was the longest spell in which he has been out of the eye of the citizenry. He usually is cited almost daily as giving "on the spot guidance" to farmers, soldiers or factory hands.

At the same time, the Korean Central News Agency, Mr. Kim's propaganda machine, returned to its strident rhetoric after a period in which it had been noticeably subdued. Accusing the United States of preparing to launch a nuclear war against North Korea, KCNA asserted: "The army and the people of the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] will mercilessly wipe them out."

In Panmunjom, where U.S. and North Korean military officers have met regularly since the armistice halted the Korean War in 1953, the North Koreans have stopped showing up; they also canceled a meeting of U.S. and North Korean generals. Moreover, the North Koreans have called off economic and maritime talks with South Korea.

The North Koreans have not explained their reasons for all this. Even so, informed speculation holds that Mr. Kim has decided to go full speed ahead to acquire nuclear arms and is no longer interested, if he ever was, on using them as bargaining chips in negotiations with the United States.

Until now, U.S. administrations assumed that the North Koreans intended their threats to go nuclear to be aimed at getting concessions. They would threaten calamity, then back off and accept what was billed as a compromise. Almost invariably, they later broke whatever agreement had been reached, and the drill started all over again.

President Bush, however, has refused to play that game. In response, the North Koreans seem to have taken nuclear weapons off the negotiating table. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage told a Japanese newspaper recently that all evidence from the North Koreans "leads me to believe that their intention was always to have nuclear weapons."

A former senior officer in the State Department, Desaix Anderson, said in a speech last month that North Korea was becoming "a nuclear-armed state" because of fear arising from the hostility of the Bush administration. He has had extensive experience in dealing with the North Koreans on nuclear issues.

Shigeru Ishiba, director-general of Japan's self-defense agency, said in a recent interview with a South Korean newspaper: "It seems that North Korea is not merely bluffing concerning nuclear weapons but really wants to possess them."

And Brent Choi, a South Korean newspaper specialist on North Korea, wrote recently that Mr. Kim is the "Asian version" of Iraq's Saddam Hussein and heads a country that manufactures and exports weapons of mass destruction.

KCNA seemed to agree, contending: "The DPRK pulled out of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty as a legitimate self-defensive measure" because its sovereignty had been threatened. Mr. Bush and other senior administration officials, however, have pledged repeatedly that the United States will not invade North Korea.

If these assessments are correct, North Korea is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power despite being nearly flat broke. Pyongyang is believed to have two nuclear weapons now and can produce about one a month once its nuclear facilities are up and running. It would have about eight weapons by the end of this year, and about 20 by the end of 2004.

The consequences for the United States and its allies in Asia are enormous, even if only the general outline can be seen now.

First would come a shift in the balance of power in Asia, with North Korea demanding a much larger voice.

Second would be the failure of U.S. efforts to prevent or at least slow the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Third could be a nuclear arms race that might include South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, plus one or more nations in Southeast Asia.

Lastly, impoverished North Korea, which has not been shy about selling missiles, other weapons and military equipment to earn desperately needed foreign exchange, could market nuclear arms to terrorists and other "rogue" states.

In sum, when the curtain goes up, the Bush administration, which has tried to push disputes with North Korea off the radar screen until the Iraq affair has been settled, may be in for a surprise. Mr. Kim won't wait. As Mr. Anderson said: "We are in the midst of an increasingly dangerous crisis. The threat from North Korea is far greater now than it was only two years ago."

Richard Halloran is a writer and free-lance journalist who is an expert on East Asia. He lives in Honolulu.

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