Sun, Dec 05, 2010 - Page 9 News List

North Korea wields ‘power of weakness’

North Korea derives strength from its very weakness by playing on Chinese fears of its collapse and having very little to lose

By Joseph S. Nye

What is going on in North Korea? On Nov. 23, its army fired nearly 200 artillery rounds onto the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, near the two countries’ disputed maritime border, killing four — including two civilians — and demolishing scores of houses and other structures. The presence of civilians, many of whom had to be evacuated, made North Korea’s attack even more provocative than its sinking in March of the South Korean warship Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors.

And just a few weeks before the shelling of Yeonpyeong, North Korea showed a delegation of US scientists a new and previously undisclosed uranium-enrichment plant, which will increase the regime’s capacity to make nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been a matter of concern for two decades. Pyongyang violated its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by secretly reprocessing enough plutonium to produce two nuclear weapons in the early 1990s. After it withdrew from a restraining agreement negotiated by the Clinton administration in 1994, it expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and began reprocessing spent fuel that could produce another six bombs’ worth of plutonium.

Now, with its new enrichment plant, North Korea’s access to fissile materials will greatly increase. Its leaders have a reputation for selling dangerous items such as missiles, narcotics and counterfeit currency, and many worry that they might transfer nuclear materials to other countries or to terrorist groups. The recent WikiLeaks disclosures of classified US diplomatic documents, for example, suggest that North Korea has been helping Iran with its advanced missile program.

Former US president George W. Bush’s administration initially hoped that it could solve the North Korean nuclear problem through regime change. The idea was that isolation and sanctions would topple North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s dictatorship. However, the regime proved resistant and the Bush administration finally agreed to enter into six-party talks with China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas.

In September 2005, it fleetingly appeared that the talks had led North Korea to agree to forgo its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees and removal of sanctions. However, the agreement soon collapsed and North Korea refused to return to the talks until the US stopped shutting down bank accounts suspected of counterfeiting and laundering money for Kim’s regime.

Then, with diplomacy stalled, North Korea launched a series of missiles into the Sea of Japan. All five permanent members of the UN Security Council agreed on a resolution condemning North Korea’s actions, and China warned North Korea to moderate its behavior. Instead, in 2006, North Korea detonated a nuclear device, and did so again last year.

Ostensibly, North Korea is a weak country with a disastrous economic system. Starting from similar levels a half-century ago, South Korea has grown to become one of the world’s most prosperous economies, with nearly 50 million people enjoying a per capita income of US$30,000 (at purchasing price parity). North Korea has half the population and per capita income of less than US$2,000. In the 1990s, North Korea suffered extreme famine, which probably killed 1 million to 2 million people, and even today North Korea depends on China for food and fuel.

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