September 3, 2003

September 3, 2003 | Commentary on Asia

Not a New Nuke Threat

As predictable as Yosemite's Old Faithful, North Korea blew off some thermonuclear steam last week in Beijing.

At the end of the Six Party Talks, convened to address North Korea's nuclear aspirations, Pyongyang announced it would soon declare itself a de facto nuclear-weapons state, and test a nuke, too. It also made a lightly disguised threat to restart missile testing. A day later, after initially agreeing to meet again, it said it would no longer continue the talks.

It's rationale for pulling the plug on future meetings: the U.S. "hardline" position. Washington wants Pyongyang to come back into compliance with the four international agreements it violated by restarting its nuclear programs.

Terrible news? It could be, if North Korea decides to light off a nuke. But put the rhetoric into context: We've heard these threats before. North Korea promised to prove itself a nuclear power at the trilateral talks (U.S., North Korea, China) in Beijing in April. It even threatened to transfer nukes to others - undoubtedly meaning terrorist groups.

The latest bombshells are likely just another case of North Korean bluster and bad diplomatic behavior. By the end of last week's talks, Pyongyang realized that it is under tremendous pressure to end its nuclear brinksmanship, since the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea all agreed it should end its nuclear weapons program. So the North's negotiators lashed out in an effort to get concessions, perhaps including upfront sweeteners such as food aid for its starving millions.

Such North Korean threats have worked in the past. But Kim Jong Il could be in for a rude awakening if he believes that this negotiating tactic will work with this administration.

American officials have said that if North Korea explodes a nuclear weapon, it will press for an economic quarantine. (Coincidently, the U.S. and 11 other navies just finished counterproliferation exercises off of Australia.)

The Chinese, who have quite a bit of "face" invested in the talks' success, were snubbed by Pyongyang's ploys. So Beijing will probably put the squeeze on North Korea to return to the table. If it doesn't, China might go along with sanctions (which it has previously rejected).

Without support from Chinese, North Korea's largest trading partner, a blockade would be feckless. Even without an embargo, Beijing can unilaterally make things much tougher for Kim Jong Il. (China shut off North Korean oil for three days for "technical" reasons just prior to Pyongyang agreeing to the Six Party Talks.) Were China to abandon North Korea, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il would be almost completely isolated. (Not that he has lots of friends now.)

We can hope North Korea soon comes to realize that its threats are counterproductive. It is important for the United States to continue to test Pyongyang's intentions on its nuclear programs and exhaust all peaceful options before taking more draconian actions, such as seeking U.N. economic sanctions or an embargo. But should North Korea continue its provocative ways, especially proliferating nuclear materials or weapons off the Korean peninsula, a more muscular policy by the international community is justified and, indeed, required.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow for National Security Affairs.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeard in the New York Post