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It was the United States which first voided a Geneva agreement to keep nuclear weapons capability out of North Korean hands. Now, after living under threat -- at times explicit -- of U.S. nuclear attack, and after several of its recent, conciliatory moves were rejected, North Korea is speaking the only language Washington seems to recognize -- that of military might.
Despite depictions of North Korea as a dangerous, unpredictable country playing its nuclear cards seemingly out of the blue, the fact is that the United States forced its hand.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, the United States was the first to breach an agreement with North Korea to halt work on weapons-grade plutonium in return for two energy-producing nuclear reactors.
In 1994, a crisis over suspected North Korean nuclear development plans went to the brink of war before being settled by the Geneva Agreed Framework. North Korea shelved its graphite nuclear reactor plans in return for an American proposal to construct light water reactors to generate 2,000 megawatts of electricity by a target date of 2003, and to supply 500,000 tons per year of heavy oil for energy generation in the interim. The two parties agreed to "move towards full normalization of political and economic relations" and the United States was to provide "formal assurances to (North Korea) against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the United States..."
Nine years have passed. There are no light-water reactors. At the construction site there is nothing more than large hole in the ground, with no prospect of any power generation till around the end of this decade. And, far from there being any progress toward normalization of political and economic relations, George W. Bush began his presidency by calling North Korea part of the "axis of evil." In place of "formal assurances," he talked about pre-emptive attack, indicating a willingness to include nuclear weapons as part of that. The United States is plainly in serious breach of the Framework.
Pyongyang in October 2002 admitted purchase -- but not use -- of centrifuge technology for uranium enrichment, and in December it ordered out U.N. inspectors and announced it would restart the graphite reactors. This, too, was clearly a departure from the Framework. However, the Framework was first voided by the United States, and the current threats to enrich uranium, restart the plutonium-producing reactors and test long-range ballistic missiles are best seen as a desperate ploy to try to bring Washington back to honor its previous commitments.
North Korea has lived longer under the shadow of nuclear threat than any other nation, from the Korean War, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur had to be restrained from his plan to drop "between 30 and 50 atomic bombs" and lay a belt of radioactive cobalt across the neck of the Korean peninsula, through the long Cold War, when the United States introduced nuclear artillery, mines, and missiles into South Korea to intimidate the non-nuclear North. After the Cold War, rehearsals continued for a long-range nuclear bombing strike against North Korean targets. After facing for half a century the threat of extermination, it would be surprising if North Korea did not now show signs of neurosis.
However, unlike Iraq, war on North Korea is virtually impossible because South Korea will not allow it. Gallup polls show nearly 60 percent of Koreans in the south no longer believe North Korea poses a security threat, and a majority believes North Korea is "sincere in its efforts for reunification." Even in the crisis of 1994, President Clinton was shocked to find that South Korea would not commit a single soldier to the U.S. cause. Kim Dae Jung, president from 1997, distanced himself further from Washington by his "sunshine" policy of engaging Pyongyang.
Last December 19, Roh Moo-Hyun, representing a new, post-Cold War generation even more "recalcitrant" to Washington, was elected South Korean president. Roh ruled out any deadline for Pyongyang's compliance with international demands to end its nuclear program and promised to "guarantee North Korea's security" if necessary. In a showdown, he implied, South Korea would be as likely to fight with Pyongyang as against it.
Pyongyang has learned from experience that what the United States respects most
is military force. In the 1990s, existence of its missile and nuclear programs persuaded Washington to talk, after the United States had refused to do so for 40 years, and brought then-Defense Secretary William Perry to the table to negotiate. Perry's report cleared Pyongyang of suspicions of nuclear weapons development and opened the way to an exchange of Pyongyang-Washington visits in 2000. Diplomatic and economic normalization might have been accomplished had time not run out on the Clinton administration.
North Korea is easiest to represent as bizarre, incomprehensible or "evil." Yet like all states, it is the product of its history, constructed first around the guerrilla bands that fought against Japan in the 1930s and their foundation myths, and then surviving a half-century under threat of extinction at the hands of the global superpower. Only when North Korea reaches peace with Japan and the United States can there be any prospect of the dissolution of such a "guerrilla state."
Today, many North Korean gestures point to a will for change, a desire to come in from the cold. In September 2002, President Kim Jong Il actually apologized (to Japan) for some of his country's crimes. The indications are that Pyongyang is no longer monolithic. Powerful elements want to set aside the guerrilla model of secrecy, mobilization, absolute loyalty to the commander and the priority to the military and instead pursue perestroika (for which in 2001 the Korean word "kaegon" was coined). Road and rail links are about to be reopened and many economic deals set in place with South Korea.
Paradoxically, as North Korea seeks an easing of military pressure and signals readiness to begin experimenting with capitalism, the world seems unprepared to listen. As the crisis evolves, the readiness by the United States (and Japan) to make any concession to North Korean "face," to see in historical context the pain and the sense of justice, however perverted, that drive the nation, is conspicuously absent.
McCormack is a research professor at Australian National University and an expert on East Asia. He is the author of "The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence. "Copyright Gavan McCormack 2003. For fair use only/ pour usage équitable seulement .