Monday, February 14, 2005

Why the Uproar?

Pyongyang's assertion that they possess nuclear weaponry should not have come as a shock; analysts have been saying for years that the DPRK have the uranium, the technology, and the intent to weaponize. So what's the big deal?

Have they actually constructed a reliable delivery system? Do they believe that disclosure in this manner would pressure the U.S. into bilateral talks? Is this their way of thumbing their nose at China and Russia, demanding equal status? Or are they predestined to become the Pariah State poster child of the 21st century?

The country affected the most by this information is the People's Republic of China. The Washington-Pyongyang confrontation in 2002 over an alleged uranium enrichment program caught Beijing off guard, and they appear to be suspecting that the DPRK are a bunch of ungrateful louts. Beijing is the only powerful friend that North Korea has now, and supplies a preponderance of energy (oil) and food supplies to Pyongyang, primarily out of respect to their 1961 mutual security agreement, possibly to maintain the DPRK as a "geopolitical buffer zone". During the 1950-1953 Korean War, Beijing stood firmly behind Pyongyang, as Washington began to implement the policy of containment in the Korean Peninsula. The Chinese paid dearly for their assistance, losing an estimated 300,000-500,000 soldiers, which went unappreciated by the North Korean government. Additionally, their intervention annoyed Washington to such a degree that even Chiang Kai-Shek's corrupt-slash-discredited-slash-exiled government on the overlooked island of Formosa was able to successfully appeal for protection under the auspices of being anti-communist. Hamish McDonald, in the aforementioned article, quotes Chinese Scholar Xiao Ren [please don't tell me it's spelled '小人'!]: "In the eyes of many people in China, had there not been the Korean War and China's forced involvement, there would not have existed a Taiwan question today," assuming that the United States would have quietly ignored Chairman Mao finishing off a few ragtag counterrevolutionaries and the remnants of a deposed government, who certainly had not been welcomed with open arms in Taiwan (2-28, anyone?). Beijing will not be so willing to sacrifice themselves a second time for North Korea.

Beijing has the most to lose should North Korea continue to stockpile. The PRC has been the driving force behind the six-party talks, and thus has a vested interest in its' success. Additionally, the disruption of the "nuclear-free Korean peninsula" would give Japan, Pyongyang's most hated enemy, an impetus for building their own nuclear shield. Currently, Tokyo is "protected" by the United States "nuclear umbrella", although some hardliners are pushing for self-reliance. Allowing such free proliferation of nuclear weapons to develop in Asia is something neither Beijing nor Washington are eager to see happen.

Russia, although usually sympathetic with North Korea, issued an unequivocal statement regarding Pyongyang's bid to withdraw from the talks, stating their concern that Pyongyang might have "made the wrong choice" and called for pressure to "do all we can to keep that state in the treaty framework".

In 2000, Thailand, the Philippines, Italy, Australia, the E.U. among others established diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, initial goodwill gestures in response to North Korea's apparent interest in rejoining the international community. It might assumed that the sudden increase in status and the inflow of funds and investments may have emboldened Kim Jong-il to assert his self-reliance to the dismay of his "big brothers" in Beijing and Moscow.

Beijing has had past success reasoning with Pyongyang. During the crisis of 2002, Beijing contemplated their military options, but rightly concluded that any pre-emptive strike would not reach the DMZ in time to prevent an attack on Seoul. In 2003, the oil lifeline that supplies the DPRK was turned off for "technical reasons" for a period of three days, and soon afterward, the North Koreans showed a willingness to attend the six-way summit in Beijing.

One North Korean official stated that the continued presence of U.S. troops along the 38th Parallel was one of the primary reasons for withdrawal from the negotiations. This actually begs a tantalizing question: since China, as a condition of their 1961 mutual defense treaty, has continued to provide weapons and technology to the North Koreans, would they respond positively to a gradual reduction in forces to the point of complete withdrawal? I think this could be a tremendous opportunity for the Beijing to save face, as they would appear to be justified first in supplying weapons and now in pushing for disarmament, which currently puts them in an awkward position. However, demobilization could not be done unilaterally without the approval of Seoul or Tokyo, without damaging relations with our strategic allies.

On our own, there are not a lot of good options, however, the ball seems to be in China's court for now, but at least we are still in the game.