Pyongyang raises the stakes
By Ralph A. Cossa
Global Beat Syndicate
HONOLULU--Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's response to Pyongyang's surprise announcement that it felt "compelled to suspend our participation in the [six-party] talks" and that it had "manufactured nukes" was exactly right: "I think we just have to first look at the statement and then we need to talk with our allies," Rice said, adding that the North Koreans "have been told they can have multilateral security assurances if they will make the important decision to give up their nuclear weapons program. So there is really no reason for this, but we will examine where we go next."
The authoritative North Korean Foreign Ministry statement seems pretty clear. Pyongyang is "suspending its participation" in the talks (as opposed to quitting them) due to Washington's "hostile policy," most recently evidenced by Secretary Rice's reference to North Korea as an "outpost of tyranny." Had Pyongyang's pronouncement ended there, it would have likely been interpreted as a tactical move to reap more ""rewards" (read: bribes) just for attending talks at some later date.
But Pyongyang decided to raise the stakes, saying Washington's "nuclear stick" compelled it "to take a measure to bolster its nuclear weapons arsenal." While the North previously claimed that it had "weaponized" its reprocessed plutonium, this time it was far more explicit: "We had already taken the resolute action of pulling out of the NPT [Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty] and have manufactured nukes for self-defense."
This is an unambiguous declaration that North Korea is now a nuclear-weapon state. Anyone still in denial may argue that we should not believe Pyongyang's claim of possessing nuclear weapons than we should believe previous assertions that it did not have them. But it seems foolish--and foolhardy--to ignore the intended message.
Secretary Rice is right to consult "the allies." But what are they prepared to say and do? Most eyes have shifted toward Beijing, which has acted as an "honest broker" for the six-way dialogue. China has continually urged patience while openly questioning Washington's assertions about Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities and intentions. The diplomatic prowess of President Hu Jintao and China's "fourth generation" leadership will now be put to its most severe test.
But the country with the greatest degree of leverage over North Korea is South Korea. As a result of Seoul's "Sunshine Policy" of economic engagement, North Korea has become increasingly dependent on the South economically; its (increasingly tentative) political acceptability internationally also has its roots in Seoul's continued encouragement to others to engage the North. One wonders if ROK President Roh Moo-hyun is prepared to use this leverage or if it is Seoul, not Pyongyang, that has been bluffing.
President Roh has consistently argued that Seoul "would not tolerate" nuclear weapons in the North. Pyongyang, he asserted, could either go down the path of political and economic cooperation with the South and reap the considerable rewards in this choice, or it could pursue nuclear weapons and face political and economic isolation. North Korea could not have it both ways . . . or can it? However else we choose to interpret Pyongyang's latest statement, it clearly is calling Seoul's hand on this issue.
If President Roh is serious about not tolerating a nuclear North Korea, he should--at minimum--immediately announce that South Korea is "suspending participation" in all economic cooperation and assistance programs until Pyongyang has provided a satisfactory explanation of its declared nuclear capabilities and intentions.
The other six-party participants should support and echo this call. Beijing, ideally at Seoul's request, should call an emergency plenary session of the six-party talks, inviting Pyongyang to attend and provide further explanation of its current stance, but making it clear that the meeting will proceed regardless of whether the North participates.
North Korea has effectively played a "divide and conquer" game throughout the nuclear stand-off. If it receives conflicting signals from Washington, Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow in response to this latest provocation, it will be encouraged to continue this tactic. The time has come for the other five finally to begin speaking with one voice, to hold Pyongyang accountable for its own words and actions. If this problem cannot be handled within the six-party context, then the only alternatives are collective action through the UN Security Council--the desired alternative Beijing, Seoul and Moscow previously believed to be "premature"--or unilateral actions that will likely only make matters worse.