Fri, 31 Jan 2003

Nuclear tremors in the Far East

Salman Haidar The Statesman Asia News Network Calcutta

The recent disclosure by North Korea that it had been developing nuclear weapons spread alarm and confusion within the international community, and set in train a process aimed at bringing the program to a halt.

The initial U.S. reaction was brusque and uncompromising, demanding that North Korea reverse its plans without further ado. But regional countries, including powerful and influential ones such as Japan, Russia, China and South Korea, have kept pushing for international engagement with North Korea to prevent the situation from deteriorating further.

They have persuaded the United States to be less obdurate, so that their effort to keep this unpredictable neighbor within acceptable bounds should have a chance of success. Talks between North and South Korea have just ended, and an early visit to Pyongyang by Seoul ministers has been announced. Efforts are on to avoid provoking this militarily powerful state whose erratic ways keep everyone on tenterhooks.

The issues are not simple. A look-back to the mid-1990s when Pyongyang's nuclear program first created shock waves is a reminder of where this matter can lead to.

Then, as now, a series of ambiguous statements and actions suggested North Korea was unshackling its nuclear program from global supervision. This gave a new twist to its long-standing face-off with the U.S.-South Korea combine and also provoked new fears about proliferation.

Pyongyang's severe economic problems at the time added to the uncertainty: The country was believed to be dependent on careful dollops of food and fuel from China. South Korea, by contrast, was flourishing, which encouraged expectations of Korean reunification on terms favorable to the South, similar to the reunion of East and West Germany.

In those difficult circumstances, the nuclear warning from Pyongyang looked like a bid to assert itself globally and to obtain some immediate gains. The move paid off quite well.

By the time the crisis simmered down, North Korea had succeeded in obtaining nuclear power reactors, substantial food supplies, and much else, that included talks offering some relief from its isolation.

The nuclear shivers induced by the episode had their own significance. At that time, India and Pakistan were regarded as being closer to the nuclear threshold, as indeed they were, but as 1998 showed, overt nuclearisation by the two South Asian neighbors did not create insuperable pressures within the region for anyone else to follow suit.

By contrast, the warning signs from Pyongyang brought much greater uncertainty. South Korea, already under constant military pressure, could hardly have ignored such a move. Japan would have been in a quandary, and submerged nationalist groups could have surfaced to press their country to emulate North Korea.

In such a situation, China could not remain aloof, and neither could Russia, the world's second big nuclear power. Even countries as far as Australia had to consider whether they might have to re-think their stand on the nuclear issue.

Thus there was an obvious shared interest among many countries not to let matters get out of hand, and they combined effectively to put a cap on North Korea's nuclear ambition. A package of benefits was devised that helped halt the program, and with it came a slow thaw in North Korea's ties with the world.

The present crisis, which revives some of the same adverse possibilities, could be more dangerous, for it involves a startling admission about a nuclear weapons program. It has also led North Korea to renege on international obligations on nuclear safeguards that it had assumed only a few years ago.

Suddenly, it is back on the global worry list, no more to be seen as a regime left over by time that is living out its days in a remote corner of the world. The timing is also shrewd, for this emergency has been brought into being at a time when the world is pre-occupied with Iraq, and thus the risk of a concentrated hostile reaction is fairly remote.

The big change is in the U.S. mood, which is now very different. Washington may have come around to seeing the advantages of a diplomatic solution to the crisis in North Korea, but its mood is tougher than it was last time and it may be less inclined to wrap together an agreeable package to assuage Pyongyang's demands.

After all, this is the regime that was included by President George W. Bush in the "axis of evil" that he said threatened the world order; the implication being that it should be extirpated rather than mollified. But for now at least, the U.S. Secretary of State has called for diplomatic action rather than coercive steps to resolve the problem.

On its part, Pyongyang has warned that it will regard sanctions as a warlike act and respond accordingly. Thus the search for accommodation between the parties is proceeding in this difficult and tense setting.

North Korea's unpredictability is the greatest problem in dealing with it. Its regime is difficult to understand, and its military might can't be ignored -- India has good reason to acknowledge this fact, for the medium-range missiles that Pakistan aims at us are acquired from the North Korea.

For now, the world is trying to contain, even appease, North Korea. But tougher measures cannot be ruled out. Successful intervention to remove weapons of mass destruction from Iraq could well breed hopes of something similar in the Far East.

The author is former foreign secretary to the government of India.