North Korea's Nuclear Revelation

24 October 2002

By Stentor Danielson

Earlier this month, the oft-ignored third member of the Axis of Evil jumped onto the front page by revealing that it was on its way to building weapons of mass destruction. North Korean officials told Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly that they had not lived up to their side of a 1994 bargain, under which the US would build two light-water nuclear reactors in North Korea in exchange for the Koreans? cessation of nuclear research. The US's failure to fulfill its side of the agreement -- the reactors are several years behind schedule -- was cited as the justification.

Liberals were quick to point out the contrast between the Bush Administration's handling of the North Korean situation and its handling of Iraq. Saddam Hussein deprived his people of freedom and let them starve, used the US's breaking of international agreements (the administration has admitted American weapons inspectors were spying for the CIA) to back out of his end of the deal, and may have weapons of mass destruction. North Korea oppressed and starved its people, backed out of an agreement, and is working on weapons of mass destruction, but Bush sees no option other than war for Iraq, while sticking to diplomatic measures against North Korea.

But Bush's inconsistent foreign policy doesn't explain why North Korea admitted to developing nuclear weapons. With Bush beating the war drums for an attack justified by suspected possession of weapons of mass destruction, and with his demonstrated willingness to jump from one security threat to another on the slimmest of ties, one would think a rational dictator would be cautious about getting on Washington's bad side. Lee Jong-suk, a Seoul-based analyst, called the revelation "a clumsy, suicidal method that does not befit North Korean diplomacy."

North Korea's strategy makes sense, however, when you look at it in terms of the reasons countries build nuclear weapons. Since the end of World War II, no country has built a nuclear weapon in order to use it. They?ve built nuclear weapons so that they can threaten to use them. Neither Hussein nor Kim Jong Il would launch a missile at the US, as the world would almost certainly respond by giving the US carte blanche for nuclear retaliation. But a nuclear weapons program allows these leaders to play on the US's fear of just such an attack.

The US's military supremacy -- which the Bush Administration has had no qualms about flaunting -- leaves dictators of small, economically unsuccessful countries like Iraq and North Korea feeling a bit outclassed. North Korea has a particular concern about American military hegemony, since the US has maintained a presence on the Korean peninsula as well as close ties with South Korea. As North Korea's government has become less secure due to a worsening economic situation vis a vis the south, and the loss of support internationally, it has stepped up rhetoric about the American threat. A nuclear program levels the playing field, forcing the US to treat North Korea as an equal rather than as a petty dictatorship that Washington can shove around. This -- not the US's failure to supply the promised nuclear reactors -- is the reason Pyongyang didn't shut down its nuclear program in 1994.

North Korea is playing the nuke card for its best advantage. Having been labeled part of the Axis of Evil, and with Washington suspecting for some time that North Korea was not meeting its 1994 obligations, North Korea was in a tight spot. By admitting to a weapons program, it could capture the advantage by deciding on the timing of the revelation.

Admitting to the weapons program helps North Korea to get out of the consequences of having it. A confrontational position, marked by accusations and denial, would help the US build support for punitive action, whether it be military or economic. But by laying it out as a bargaining chip, North Korea can angle for greater concessions from the US. This builds on North Korea?s recent policy of engagement with Japan and South Korea. North Korea recently admitted to kidnapping eleven Japanese citizens, and construction on a railroad linking North and South Korea is going ahead as planned.

It's even possible that those concessions could be won without giving up the nuclear program, as the US may be too distracted by Iraq, and too unconcerned about the Korean military threat (which has been cited as the reason for the different responses to the two nations? weapons programs), to mount rigorous inspections. The combination of a conciliatory approach and the threat of nuclear weapons puts the Bush Administration in an awkward position, which North Korea can capitalize on.

The administration's preoccupation with Iraq does more than simply provide cover from a military response -- it also makes the revelation more strategically important. To gain legitimacy and help to build up a struggling nation, North Korea needs the attention of the US. Defiantly announcing the weapons program forces the US to deal with North Korea.

Small players on the world scene pursue weapons of mass destruction in order to make themselves bigger, to force other nations to meet them as equals and thus to gain an advantage in negotiating concessions. With the Bush Administration taking a hawkish stance toward Iraq, North Korea's attempt to use this strategy could have become a liability. By admitting to the weapons program at a time when it seems to be on a path of reconciliation and the US cannot afford a military response, North Korea could play the nuclear card to its advantage. Where they had once hoped to gain concessions by threatening to use nuclear force, North Korea's leaders may now be expecting to get an advantage by flaunting their development of such weapons.

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