The Korean crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions is becoming murkier by the day. Some recently reported developments will illustrate this point. First, there was the statement by Ko Young-koo, South Korea's director of National Security Service. He told his country's parliament that North Korea had tested some 70 devices as conventional explosives to trigger nuclear weapons. Given that Seoul is not given to hyperbole on this issue, his statement is significant.
At another level, the recently held Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) conference of 11 nations in Brisbane, Australia, was a step in the direction of forging out a multinational blockade of North Korea. This would seek to choke off its economic lifeline, significantly dependent on missile exports and other products like drugs, counterfeit money and so on. Not surprisingly, Pyongyang has threatened dire consequences at the US strategy "to isolate and stifle North Korea."
The resultant brinkmanship seems designed to see who will blink first. Neither side is keen to go to war. But Washington is serious about North Korea's nuclear program and keen to impress the gravity of the situation to the point of risking a war, if necessary.
In this context, Australia has emerged as the US regional point man, evidenced by Prime Minister John Howard's recent visits to Japan and South Korea. Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer have emphasized the seriousness of the situation. At the same time, they haven't foreclosed the diplomatic option of multilateral negotiations to peacefully resolve the crisis. For instance, Howard was keen to emphasize that the blockade initiative was still at the consideration stage. According to his foreign minister Downer, any interception force to deal with North Korea was "really a long way down the track", and Australians "don't need to prepare themselves for [another military action] at this stage."
But the problem is how to strike a balance without making the PSI initiative look like a grand bluff. Hence, the Howard disclosure that Australia and the US would host the first round of military manoeuvres in September under the PSI. He said, "They're designed primarily to put us in a position to effectively gather an interception force if that's what we ultimately decide to do." He emphasized, though, that, "It would be wrong to see them [military exercises] as a ploy to send a warning shot to the North Koreans."
Such moves are not without danger, though, as pointed out by William Perry, a defense secretary under former US president Bill Clinton. According to Perry, "I think we are losing control of the situation." He warned, "The nuclear program now under way in North Korea poses an imminent danger of nuclear weapons being detonated in American cities."
Such apocalyptic scenarios are not good for domestic consumption in the US, Australia or elsewhere in the world. Howard, for instance, has been at pains to squash any fear of Australia becoming a nuclear target. He said, "I don't think North Korea has any functioning weaponry, if I can put it that way, that's capable of delivering it."
In other words, we are in the midst of a high stakes political poker game designed to put the maximum pressure on Pyongyang. And simultaneously to rope in China to avoid things drifting into a war-like situation. According to Hugh White, director of the government-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute, "The key to George Bush's approach now is to use diplomacy to gain China's help in brokering a peaceful resolution with Pyongyang."