| Thursday, February 10, 2005
| Going Nuclear
|George W. Bush is no John F. Kennedy. Yet, with North Korea's announcement that it has, and plans to "bolster its nuclear" arsenal to counter what it calls U.S. aggression, Bush could find himself facing the Kennedy scenario. NYT's Nicholas Kristoff made the prescient point yesterday that so far, Bush has totally mishandled North Korea, saying the president has been "startlingly passive" as Kim Jong-il expands his arsenal. So it's tough to see where the administration goes from here.
North Korea is particularly awkward for Mr. Bush to discuss publicly because, as best we know, it didn't make a single nuclear weapon during Bill Clinton's eight years in office (although it did begin a separate, and secret, track to produce uranium weapons; it hasn't produced any yet but may eventually). In contrast, the administration now acknowledges that North Korea extracted enough plutonium in the last two years for about half a dozen nuclear weapons. From the CIA's World Factbook:
In December 2002, following revelations it was pursuing a nuclear weapons program based on enriched uranium in violation of a 1994 agreement with the United States to freeze and ultimately dismantle its existing plutonium-based program, North Korea expelled monitors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and in January 2003 declared its withdrawal from the international Non-Proliferation Treaty. In mid-2003 Pyongyang announced it had completed the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods (to extract weapons-grade plutonium) and was developing a "nuclear deterrent." Since August 2003 North Korea has participated in six-party talks with the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia to resolve the stalemate over its nuclear programs. And Kristoff makes the point that the U.S. has few viable options on the table:
Not to mention the fact that we've bogged down more than 150,000 troops at a time in Iraq, with a total troop rotation exceeding 940,000 so far, plus tne new, neocon noises we're making toward Iran...
In fairness, Mr. Bush is paralyzed only because the alternatives are dreadful. A military strike on North Korea's nuclear sites might have been an option in the early 1990's, but today we don't know where the plutonium and the uranium are kept, so a military strike might accomplish little - but trigger a new Korean war. To fill the time, Mr. Bush has pursued six-party talks involving North Korea, but they have gotten nowhere.
The other option is the path that Richard Nixon pursued with Maoist China: esolute engagement, leading toward a new "grand bargain" in which Kim Jong Il
How about turning to the UN? Their record on stopping proliferation has been dismal (Pakistan, India, Israel and Libya kicked off nuclear and other "mass destruction" weapons programs under the United Nations' nose, though the latter has purportedly given up its ambitions).
would give up his nuclear program in exchange for political and economic ties with the international community. This has the advantage that the best bet to bring down Mr. Kim, the Dear Leader, isn't isolation, but contacts with the outside world.
In short, it doesn't look good.
BTW, here's a good analysis the BBC. Money quotes:
Only last month, Pyongyang said it was ready to treat the US as a "friend", and officials in the region expected new talks to start in a matter of weeks.
The turnaround, according to North Korea, was provoked by recent high-profile speeches by the Bush administration, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's branding of Pyongyang as an "outpost of tyranny".
North Korea last took part in talks on its nuclear programme in June But analysts said the real reason was last week's briefing of Asian officials by Michael Green, a senior US envoy.
During visits to Japan, South Korea and China, he is believed to have alleged that North Korea sold enriched uranium - a key ingredient of nuclear weapons - to Libya in 2001.
If true, that transaction would undermine North Korea's claim that its nuclear arsenal is purely defensive, and threaten to escalate its row with the US to a dangerous new level.
Military action is highly unlikely because of the size of North Korea's conventional army, and the international consensus that it does have a nuclear weapons programme, and at least six to eight nuclear weapons already in its arsenal.
The US is also currently preoccupied with Iraq and Iran so diplomacy is its only choice, analysts said.
|posted by JReid @ 4:26 PM