Fri, 07 Mar 2003

Clearer, more present danger

While most of the world's attention has been drawn to the debate about the use of force to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD), a clearer and more present danger regarding the use of such weapons is rapidly developing on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea, rather than Iraq, today is the one most likely to use such weapons. Pyongyang, not Baghdad, is the more menacing of the two. While Iraq is important, the international community must not neglect the situation that is evolving in East Asia.

There is now a serious threat of a nuclear war erupting on the Korean Peninsula, with all the dire consequences that people in the entire Asian region will have to suffer.

News coming from Pyongyang these past few weeks suggests a deliberate attempt to increase the tension. Having expelled the UN nuclear inspectors, North Korea has since announced that it was abandoning the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, freeing it from all the obligations that a nuclear power must abide by.

North Korea has also admitted that it still possesses some nuclear weapons, in spite of a 1994 pledge to destroy them in return for massive injection of international financial assistance.

Western intelligence reports have recently confirmed that North Korea has restarted its nuclear reactor plant, and that the waste produced from this plant could be used as a source of plutonium for its nuclear weapons.

Then, last week, North Korea fired a missile into the Sea of Japan, upstaging the inauguration of South Korea's new president Roh Moo-hyun in Seoul.

What is most disturbing about the behavior of North Korea is that its motive is not clear. Here is a country that is so deep in an economic crisis that many of its own people are, and have been, on the verge of starvation.

War, most of all a nuclear war, should be the last thing in the mind of any responsible leader. Yet, all North Korea's actions suggest an erratic and unpredictable state that is capable and willing to do anything, and one that has nothing to lose. That makes Pyongyang a very dangerous regime to deal with.

Pyongyang has declined various attempt at international mediation to help reduce the tension and find a peaceful solution to the problem.

Not even Indonesia, one of the few countries in the world that enjoys warm relations with North Korea, was able to persuade Pyongyang to come to the negotiating table. Senior Indonesian diplomat Nana Sutresna came away from Pyongyang empty handed last month. President Megawati, during the recent Non-Aligned Summit in Kuala Lumpur, reiterated her offer of Indonesia's good offices to help mediate between North Korea and its adversaries.

This gesture, as with offers of mediation from a number of other countries, was turned down. Pyongyang is interested in negotiations only with the United States.

Washington's response, such as conducting war games with South Korea and the deployment of bombers to Guam within the striking distance of North Korea, has exacerbated the situation.

The United States has rightly refused to treat North Korea's nuclear proliferation as a bilateral issue, but a more accommodating gesture, such as suggested by South Korea, would probably go a long way in defusing the tension.

Here, as in Iraq, diplomacy must be given a chance to work, as impossible as it may seem. The international community must put more pressure on North Korea to comply with its international obligations, and end once and for all the games that Pyongyang has been playing by terrorizing its neighbors South Korea and Japan, and the rest of Asia and the world for that matter.

Even though there is still no international consensus about the use of force to disarm Iraq among members of the Security Council, some of their time and energies must also be devoted to averting the war that might erupt soon in Korea.