Fri, Dec 20, 2002 - Page 9 News List

Pyongyang's dangerous game

North Korea's plan is to keep creating crises in order to influence the South and get what it wants from the US

By Ralph A. Cossa

ILLUSTATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

In the past week, North Korea has attempted to create a crisis on the Korean Peninsula by threatening to restart its frozen nuclear reactor while demanding that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) remove monitoring devices aimed at ensuring that the reactor operates in accordance with Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguard procedures.

Conventional wisdom is that Pyongyang is creating a fuss in order to force the administration of US President George W. Bush into new negotiations. This may, in fact, be true. But I doubt that this is the only, or perhaps even the primary, reason.

In examining Pyongyang's actions, the first question that needs to be asked is "why now?" Is it a pure coincidence that North Korea is creating this new stand-off -- immediately in the wake of another potential crisis caused by its attempt to secretly ship missiles to the Middle East -- one week before South Korea's presidential elections? I think not!

At a minimum, Pyongyang would have factored the election into its timing. More likely, it represents a heavy-handed attempt to influence the outcome. One can debate whether the North's actions would benefit the conservative or liberal candidate; understanding the level of the North's understanding of South Korea domestic politics is no easy task. But attempts to meddle in South Korea politics should come as no surprise.

Last year, Pyongyang suddenly agreed to resume North-South dialogue the evening before a scheduled vote of no confidence against then-Minister of Reunification Lim Dong-won, the architect of South Korea's Sunshine Policy. (The tactic backfired; the vote proceeded and Lim was removed from office. After one meeting, the North once again canceled its talks with the South.)

North Korea also recognizes that South Korea-US relations are currently under considerable strain, exacerbated by the continued fallout over a tragic traffic accident last June in which two South Korean teenagers were killed.

Trying to create a crisis now helps to feed anti-American feelings due to unhappiness among many Koreans over Washington's hard-line policy toward the North. This creates a "win-win" situation for Pyongyang. Either Washington comes to the table (where Pyongyang hopes to once again get rewarded for its bad behavior) or its refusal continues to feed anti-Americanism in the South.

There may be yet another contributing factor. North Korea's threat to restart its reactor -- which it has a legal right to do, provided IAEA safeguards remain in effect -- also attracts attention away from the main problem at the root of its current stand-off with the US: it's secret uranium-enrichment program, undertaken in direct violation of a number of international and North-South agreements.

Washington has refused to restart its dialogue with North Korea until this program is ended; "Why should we enter into new negotiations," Washington asks, "when the North is not honoring its past commitments?" Trick me once, shame on you. Trick me twice, shame on me.

It's possible that North Korean misinterpretation of last week's ship boarding may have also contributed to Pyongyang's action. A North Korean merchant ship, flying no flag and with its markings masked, was stopped in the Indian Ocean (by a Spanish ship participating in a UN-sanctioned multinational force to prevent the flow of weapons to al-Qaeda or Iraq). A US inspection team discovered missiles, which were not declared as cargo on the ship's manifest. Once the destination of these weapons was ascertained -- Yemen, which has a right to purchase such systems from North Korea or elsewhere -- the ship was allowed to continue to its stated destination.

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