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Issue # 1414      10 June 2009

The DPRK and the nuclear deterrent

North Korea’s (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) recent nuclear and rocket tests have ruffled many feathers. Nations – both sworn enemies and allies alike – have voiced displeasure at the tests, and so have many peace and democratic activists. At the same time, many are saying that the Korean actions are, at the very least, understandable.

Tad Daley is no friend of nuclear weapons. In fact, he’s a writing fellow with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and author of the forthcoming book “Apocalypse Never: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World.” Nonetheless, like a number of other anti-nuclear activists, he’s refused to jump on the bandwagon of anti-North Korea sentiment.

“We need to acknowledge that, from a pure perspective of rational national security grounds,” Daley told the People’s Weekly World newspaper, “it can make sense to the North Korean planners to acquire a small nuclear deterrent.”

But why is this?

Long history of conflict

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has a long history of conflict over nuclear weapons with the United States, and has long been a victim of US broken promises, threats, and, as in the Korean War, invasion and occupation.

The Korean War technically never ended; only a truce was declared. Since then, tens of thousands of US troops have remained in South Korea, aiming at the North.

In the 1990s, the US threatened Korea over its construction of a nuclear reactor aimed at supplying the state with electricity, saying, without evidence, that the reactor would be used to build nuclear bombs. After a crisis, negotiations produced results, and the US agreed to help construct a light water reactor in the DPRK, not capable of producing nuclear weapons, in exchange for the North abandoning its own reactor.

However, Republicans in the US Congress during the Clinton administration put the brakes on construction.

Recent history of threats

Relations took a turn for the worse after George W Bush was inaugurated. He declared North Korea part of an “axis of evil” and threw out any previous agreements. Bush further announced a new doctrine of “pre-emption,” which stated that the US could and would launch a war against any country that could potentially be a US threat.

“Finally,” Daley added, “[Bush] pulled the trigger on the pre-emption doctrine against one of the three [members of the “axis”], Iraq, decapitated the regime, and sent its leaders to the gallows.”

Just before the Iraq war, a DPRK general said, in explaining the DPRK nuclear program, “We see what you are getting ready to do with Iraq, and you are not going to do it to us.”

Six-party talks

The Bush administration, after accusing the North of intending to build nuclear weapons, refused to meet with the DPRK. Instead, Bush opted for a less direct method: talks between the US, the DPRK, China, South Korea, Russia and Japan; the North reluctantly accepted.

There were six rounds of talks. Initially, the US was intransigent, but, after periods of stalemate, a push from the peace movement, and the first DPRK nuclear test, there were breakthroughs, most notably in the final round of talks in 2007. During these talks, the DPRK agreed to give up its nuclear capabilities and verify that it had done so. In exchange, the US would take Korea off the list of state terror sponsors, the DPRK would be provided with humanitarian assistance and negotiations towards a full peace between the two states would be held.

The US took the DPRK off the terrorist-state list, and provided some fuel and food assistance. The North blew up its main nuclear reactor, sealed the rest, and submitted nearly 20,000 pages worth of documentation of its nuclear programs. The process was stalled, however, when the US refused to agree that the DPRK had declared all of its programs, and insisted that it was hiding a secret stockpile.

“I don’t even know what the US position is,” said Cristina Hansell of the James Martin Centre for Non-proliferation studies. She suggested that the DPRK might be wondering, after thousands of pages of documents, why the US is still not satisfied, whether, no matter what the DPRK does, “they’re still not going to say that we’ve done enough and meet the rest of their obligations.”

Why now?

It would seem, to the casual observer, that, with the Obama administration, this is a strange time for the nuclear issue to flare up.

According to the Korean-American community organisation Nodutdol, some reasons the situation flared up now include the ongoing “efforts by the US to demand further concessions from North Korea outside of the talks” and “a basic contradiction between the US wanting denuclearisation of North Korea first before peace and normalised relations, and North Korea’s wanting peace and normalised relations before fully denuclearising.”

John Feffer, editor of Foreign Policy in Focus, told the World, “Really it was a question of the details and the bigger picture.” The US simply was worried about the nuclear issue, but Korea is interested in peace, in ending the state of war altogether.

The DPRK may have decided it cannot wait any longer to see if the US will reach out and fulfil its agreements. Many have predicted a bad harvest, and the DPRK is likely worried that the assistance agreed to in the talks, delayed, may never fully arrive.

“They have only managed to get any kind of concessions or any kind of a deal from the US when they’ve conducted such tests or engaged in such behaviour,” Feffer said. “It’s logical for them to do it again to see if they can get a better deal.”

The Obama administration

“From Pyongyang’s point of view, I don’t think they would just overnight say ‘oh, Bush is gone, so all this is gone away,’” says Daley.

According to Feffer, moving forward will be difficult. The Obama administration has many problems on its hands – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and so on – and the Obama administration is under extreme pressure from the extreme right to appear “tough.”

Nonetheless, Daley says, “He hasn’t identified states as an axis of evil, he hasn’t said that we intend to pursue a doctrine of pre-emption, and he hasn’t launched any pre-emptive wars. To me that is very encouraging.”

The region

Japan’s war hawks have seized on the missile tests to push forward their agenda, which includes either changing that nation’s constitution, which prohibits an offensive army, or “reinterpreting” it, so that the military can play a more active role outside Japan’s borders. General Nakatani, a member of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, even suggested that Japan should be able to conduct pre-emptive strikes.

There are opposition voices, however. Shii Kazuo, the chair of the Japanese Communist Party, told Prime Minister Taro Aso that “the Japanese government is called upon to take the lead in the international community to completely ban nuclear weapons without delay. Once this is achieved, it will greatly help to dissolve the North Korea issue.”

The DPRK is extremely suspicious of Japan overall. Japan, which occupied Korea during WW2, committed horrific atrocities and went so far as to systematise rape, has never officially apologised or made reparations to Korea.

Relations between the DPRK and South Korea have frosted over. There is a long history of animosity on the peninsula: After the Korean War, South Korea was a military dictatorship under the tutelage of the United States, and it followed a policy of confrontation with the North. The DMZ, the line between North and South, is one of the most heavily militarised areas of the world.

South Korea’s succession of military dictatorships ended in the 1980s, and the social forces that comprised them are now represented in the far-right Grand National Party. It lost power in the 1990s to Kim Dae-jung’s Millennium Democratic Party. Kim implemented a “Sunshine Policy” of détente with the North. Under the policy, the two states became friendlier, and began dialogue and economic exchange. The policy’s culmination came when President Roh Moo-hyun walked with his wife across the border and shook hands with Kim Jong Il, leader of the DPRK.

However, Roh’s government collapsed under the weight of economic problems, and was replaced with the GNP, which quickly began undoing, as much as possible, the progress towards reunification that had been made.

According to Kim Dae-jung, in an interview with Korea’s leading liberal newspaper, the Hankyoreh, current President Lee Myung-bak, of the GNP, is surrounded by Cold War thinkers and “the fundamental cause of the worsening of inter-Korean ties was mutual distrust.” Kim called on Lee to say whether or not he would honour past agreements with the DPRK – something the North has long urged – as well as to reopen tourist areas that the south had unilaterally closed. These tourist areas were in the North, but run by cooperation from both sides.

Sympathy for the DPRK has grown in the south since the 1990s, and moving too harshly against the DPRK had been a political minefield for Lee. However, his government seized on the nuclear tests as an excuse to do what it has said for years it wants to do – join the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).

PSI and US nuclear hypocrisy

The PSI was announced by George W Bush in 2003, and designed by former US Under-secretary of State John Bolten. The stated aim of the PSI, which has a core of 15 countries, is to stop the illegal trafficking of nuclear materials. The initiative would allow inspections of any ships suspected of carrying illicit nuclear materials.

The PSI has proved controversial, as it aims to search the ships of sovereign states, but is not a United Nations agency. China refused to participate in the initiative, among other reasons, because the leadership believes the PSI to be illegal.

South Korea’s joining has infuriated the DPRK.

According to Daley, something like the PSI would be beneficial to the cause of denuclearisation of the world – if it applied to all states equally.

“That would be a fair and impartial regime, but right now that’s not what PSI is,” said Daley. “If the thinking just is ‘oh, we’ve got to make sure that there is no illicit going into or out of North Korea,’ that just reinforces the nuclear double standard.”

The North has long feared that the US was storing nuclear weapons inside of South Korea, and has emphasised that it wants denuclearisation of the entire peninsula.

“The North Koreans, at one point, said we’d be happy to let you do that as long as you let us do inspections inside South Korea.” Daley added. “I don’t think that sentiment is crazy! I think that sentiment is eminently appropriate and legitimate, and a fair and just request.”

The key to the region, says Feffer “lies with the US. Though the Lee Myung-bak administration of South Korea is antagonistic to the North, a better relationship between the US and the DPRK would change the entire dynamic.”

Is the DPRK a threat to the US?

While the North has used some provocative rhetoric, an examination of its official news source, the Korea Central News Agency, shows that its statements are entirely defensive: Its threats are not to attack anyone, but to respond if attacked.

Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the north’s ruling Workers Party of Korea said of its nuclear program, “the DPRK is left with no option but to bolster up its nuclear deterrent and take strong counter-measures.”

On June 2, the same paper said “To the Korean people, self-defence capability just means their sovereignty and right to existence and fundamental guarantee for defending socialism. We will further increase our military capability for self-defence to cope with the US imperialists and their followers’ more arrogant moves to isolate and stifle the DPRK.”

While most are opposed to the north’s nuclear tests, there has been no evidence presented that the DPRK is acting in anyway that directly threatens the world. On the contrary, its military has never fought a war outside of its borders, and even then it only fought for independence.

What now?

According to Nodutdol, the only solution is a total solution that would wipe out the root cause of the problems. As long as there is no peace treaty, there is no real incentive to fully denuclearise, they say. “The root problem is that the Korean War never ended. As North Korea’s threatened abandonment of the 1953 Armistice indicates, it’s time to for a real Peace Treaty to End the Korean War.”

Daley says that there are several steps to resolving the nuclear issue. It is, he says, important to “acknowledge that they have rational security grounds, and consequently to try to ameliorate them, to assure them that we have no intention of attacking them, to assure them that we intend to abide by the world rule of law, to assure them that they have nothing to fear from us.”

Progressive forces, he said, should send the message that “even if your narrow national security interests might be served by a nuclear arsenal, the world as a whole, including [your broader security interests], would be much safer in a world where no state has nuclear weapons, rather than in a world where you have nuclear weapons, but so too do a lot of other states.”

Finally, Daley says, “We need to confront, initially rhetorically, then later in policy action the nuclear double standard, America’s nuclear hypocrisy. We need to acknowledge that there is something fundamentally unjust about some states being able to have nuclear weapons and other states not being able to have nuclear weapons.

“We need to say that we know, ultimately, we can’t engage in non-proliferation unless we engage in disarmament.”

Next article Obama admits in US role in 1953 Iran coup

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