2003 January 16 Thursday
North Korea, China, and the United States

The press is full of reports about the North Korean nuclear weapons development efforts with lots of statements from government leaders and off-the-record comments of diplomats. But lets keep track of the basics: Which country is willing to do what in order to either restrain or bring an end to the North Korean regime? China is not helping.

Diplomats say the United States would like China, which provides Pyongyang with cheap grain and oil, to put more pressure on North Korea to drop its nuclear ambitions and avoid provocative moves such as missile testing.

China, which has taken a relatively balanced approach to the nuclear dilemma, has been pressing the two sides to negotiate. But two days after China invited the two sides to meet in Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said on Thursday there had been no takers.

What is a "balanced approach"? Reporters ought to be more careful about endorsing the spin that diplomats place on their position. China's idea of balance is to figure out how to block US moves to pressure the North Koreans to stop WMD development and WMD export while also working to keep US markets open to Chinese exports.

China does not want the matter to go to the United Nations.

Administration officials privately complain that regional players, with the possible exception of Japan, have been too wobbly in dealing with the crisis. China has been a roadblock in bringing the matter to the U.N. Security Council, officials said.

Bush has the choice of carrots or sticks. Carrots aren't going to work. Bush Administration doesn't want to try bribing the North Koreans because, as past events have already demonstrated, Kim Jong-il won't stay bought off and permanently stop WMD development. Kim will not accept a bribery deal that includes sufficiently intrusive inspections to allow verification that he's sticking to the deal. The Bush offer of food and fuel should not be seen as a formal attempt at bribery in exchange for a halt to North Korean WMD development. Bush is just trying to buy himself time to deal with Iraq.

This brings us to sticks. China supplies North Korea with a significant portion of its food and fuel. The Chinese leaders have compelling reasons to keep the North Korean regime in power. China doesn't see North Korea's nuclear ambitions as a threat to Chinese interests. At the same time North Korea is a buffer that separates China from a freer and highly affluent South Korea. Plus, much of North Korea's export of weaponry serves China's long-term interests in the Middle East. So the potentially most effective non-military stick that could be used against North Korea is not available. The US could still try to more thoroughly cut off non-Chinese supplies to the North Korean regime but Bush won't seriously consider doing that as long as Iraq is unresolved.

The US certainly is not going to take military action against the North Korean regime while Iraq's fate hangs in the balance. So the military option is off the table. Even once Saddam's regime has been consigned to the dustbin of history Bush still won't want to risk an attack on North Korea because the casualties and damage to the South Korean economy would be enormous.

Without the active support of China the United States will be hard put to force a change in the behavior of the North Korean regime. Therefore expect little action from the United States for now. The only way this crisis could escalate in the short term would be if the North Koreans miscalculated and took some form of military action. The question facing the Bush Administration is just how far is it willing to go to apply pressure to China (e.g. by gradually raising restrictions on exports from China) to make China in turn apply pressure to North Korea. We are not going to find out the answer to that question as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power in Iraq.

Kim Jong-il clearly realises the extent to which he has maneuvering room due to the heavy diplomatic and military involvement of the United States in the Middle East. He's using this opening to use rhetoric to pressure the United States to placate him while he pushes along his WMD development projects as fast as possible. The most immediate consequence of Kim Jong-il's increasingly threatening actions and rhetoric may well be to stiffen Bush's resolve to take out Saddam Hussein's regime sooner rather than later in order to free up US military assets and to get past the need to constantly do diplomatic work on issues relating to Iraq. It can't do that as long as Saddam Hussein is in power. Tony Blair is under considerable domestic pressure to try to delay the attack on Iraq until the inspectors find direct evidence of WMD in Iraq. Under different circumstances Bush might be tempted to try to help Blair by delaying the attack for many months. But the need to move on to dealing with North Korea may convince Bush that he can't let the Iraq situation go on for most of 2003.

There is a lesson here: the inability of the US military to fight and win two regional conflicts at the same time has provided an opening for the North Korean regime to accelerate its WMD development projects and to try to extract diplomatic and financial concessions from the United States and from countries in the region. The US either needs to preempt potential threats at much earlier stages or it needs a bigger military.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 January 16 01:36 PM  Axis Of Evil


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