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Will North Korea follow Iraq

01 April 2003

In its National Security Strategy (NSS) published in September 2002, the Bush administration maintains that the United States reserves the right to act pre-emptively to `stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends'. With Iraq currently in the limelight, this begs the question whether or not North Korea will follow next. From a literal interpretation of the Bush doctrine, North Korea clearly fits the bill for a pre-emptive strike. Pyongyang has recently reactivated its nuclear programme, expelled UN nuclear inspectors and withdrawn from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It may only be a question of time before it starts its reprocessor near the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, opening the door for the extraction of weapons-grade plutonium from the reactor's spent fuel rods. Some analysts and intelligence communities claim that North Korea already has at least one nuclear device. In the last few weeks, North Korea has stepped up its actions, conducting several missile launch tests, and intercepted a US Air Force reconnaissance plane in international airspace. The aim of these provocations is to force the United States to the negotiating table for bilateral talks. But, with the exception of the deployment of bombers to the region, the US response has been limited. Downplaying the crisis, the United States is looking for a multilateral solution that involves the UN and North Korea's neighbours in the region. Above all, it does not want to `reward' North Korean behaviour and agree to direct talks that would most likely centre on aid packages and a non-aggression treaty in return for a renewed moratorium on its nuclear programme. Such a move could open the door to future blackmail. The multilateral dimension of the US approach reached its high point when it actively strove to push the matter to the Security Council in late January 2002. Given the recent decision not to pursue a second resolution through the UN Security Council in the case of Iraq, it remains to be seen if this option remains on track -- especially given Chinese and Russian reticence regarding this particular route.

While puzzling, the stark contrast between US strategies towards Iraq and North Korea can be traced to five principal factors. First, Saddam Hussein has shown that he is willing to use his weapons of mass destruction -- even on his own people. Also, unlike North Korea, Iraq has attacked its neighbours. Thus, Iraq is regarded as the more troublesome of the two. Second, an attack on North Korea would probably mean a war on the Korean peninsula. With over 8,000 artillery pieces and almost one million North Korean troops along the demilitarised zone, South Korea represents an easy target. Likewise, these weapons would pose great risk to the 37,000 American soldiers stationed along the DMZ as well as to key regional allies such as Japan (with about 40,000 US troops). The unpredictable nature of Kim Jong Il and potential reactions by regional players (particularly China) reinforce such preoccupations. Third, there is a feeling among US decision-makers that North Korea can be nudged to take certain steps in the `right' direction through non-military means. For example, it is believed that economic pressure could be used as leverage to encourage Kim Jong Il to freeze the country's nuclear programme before any negotiations can take place. Fourth, with a US-led war under way in Iraq, unilateral options are limited. From a military perspective, the US doctrinal requirement of being able to conduct two major operations simultaneously is hampered by limited air- and sealift capabilities. There are simply not enough capabilities to pursue more than one major deployment at a time. Finally, the United States is working under the assumption that North Korea may already have at least one nuclear device. It is therefore handled with care (but this sends a strong signal to other would-be proliferators: once you attain nuclear weapons you are `safe'). For these reasons, it is likely that North Korea will be approached multilaterally for the time being. But the options available to the Security Council are not clear. An initial option might be to present a resolution calling for North Korea to return to the NPT, refreeze the Yongbyon reactor, and dismantle its uranium enrichment programme. Should this prove ineffective, officials have the option of imposing sanctions. This will be a critical stage, since Russia and China have voiced objections to UN sanctions. They argue such a move would be confrontational. North Korea itself has stated that it would be treated as an act of war. Before reaching that stage, it will be vital that allies agree on how the international community can force a country to comply.