Bang goes the bomb

With no WMDs and the Iraq occupation in a shambles, what lessons should Iran and North Korea draw from George Bush’s bullying tactics?

 

Pranay Sharma Delhi

 

Myopia and amnesia are terms rarely used in diplomacy. But that does not mean that nations and diplomats do not suffer from these ailments. Indeed, the North Korean nuclear test last month is a prime example of how myopia and amnesia have been fine-tuned into an effective time-tested strategy in the deceptive realm of global diplomacy.

After posturing for nearly 12 years, North Korea did what it had been threatening to do: it went nuclear. But Pyongyang’s decision to conduct its first nuclear test should not be seen in isolation. It has wide ramifications not only for the region but for the entire world.

The test has upset the apple cart that powerful international players, particularly the US, had erected so carefully in the past few decades. While it raises uncomfortable questions on the international non-proliferation regime, it has brought President George W. Bush’s concept of “the axis of evil” under serious scrutiny.

For China, which has been North Korea’s main supporter all these years, it was a major embarrassment to be informed about the test by Pyongyang only ten minutes before it was conducted. The test has forced many countries, such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, to seriously reconsider their anti-nuclear policy. Although all of them have assured the US that they were satisfied being under the American nuclear umbrella and will not conduct tests, the position could change if the scenario takes a turn for the worse.

Undoubtedly, the focus will now be squarely on another nuclear aspirant: Iran. For some years now, the leadership in Teheran has been engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the international community. While Iran has maintained its eagerness to continue negotiations with the world powers, it has shown

no signs of giving up its nuclear

programme.

However, it is about time to see why North Korea did what it did? Since 1994, the leadership in Pyongyang had made its intentions clear that it wanted to go nuclear. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, the US, through the mediation of former president Jimmy Carter, managed to dissuade North Korea from pursuing its nuclear weapons programme. As a trade-off, it was promised light water reactors, financial and other assistance from the US. The arrangement seemed to have worked. North Korea did not give up its weapons programme totally, but it did keep the weapon making plutonium reactor under the supervision

of international inspectors.

Things, however, changed with the arrival of Bush in end 2000; he said that he was not willing to soft-pedal when it comes to North Korea. Hence, he imposed financial sanctions on Pyongyang and made no bones about the fact that he was making every effort to bring about a regime change in North Korea. Kim Jong Il reacted in a predictable manner. He threw out the international inspectors and went ahead full-steam with his nuclear weapons programme.

It was China that took the initiative in 2003 to moot the idea of the six-party talks, in which North Korea, the US, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China became parties to bring about an amicable solution. Despite occasional hiccups, the talks continued till North Korea broke away and conducted the nuclear test.

The UN Security Council has condemned the test and has sought immediate dismantling of the nuclear programme and return to the six-party talks. Several financial and other sanctions have been imposed and there is an explicit threat that if Pyongyang conducts any further test it could even lead to armed action.

These are brave words, but is the international community prepared to go to war against North Korea? In contrast, currently, the stress is on diffusing the situation through negotiations. During her recent four-nation visit to Japan, South Korea, China and Russia, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice not only enlisted China’s support but also managed to get an assurance from Japan and South Korea that they won’t develop their own nuclear weapons, thereby preferring the American umbrella.

On the face of it, North Korea has assured China it won’t conduct any further test and is willing to return to the talks table, provided sanctions are lifted. The Americans have said no. Can China convince tough-talking Kim to come back to the six-party talks?

China is the only nation that has some leverage over a cash-strapped Pyongyong. North Korea’s petroleum and essential supplies come from China, including economic support. But Kim is an unpredictable dictator. Since he has been already pushed to the wall, he can turn around and tell China to take a walk. What happens then?

In 1994, when China sent a senior politburo member of the Communist Party to North Korea to inform it about Beijing’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with South Korea, the news was heard in stony silence. The North Koreans were so upset that Kim Il Sung refused to speak with his Chinese guest and didn’t accept a single gift. Since China is now seen to be cooperating wholeheartedly with the US, will Kim junior react in a similar fashion?

There could be two reasons why China agreed to cooperate with the US. Till some years back China had actively encouraged the proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies in the region using North Korea. But the revealing of Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan’s nuclear shop compelled the Chinese leadership to distance itself from its proliferation agencies. Today, China wants to present itself as a responsible world power. Since it has succeeded in helping Pakistan to become a nuclear power, mainly to check India, and has passed on missiles through the North Korean route to Islamabad, Beijing now would prefer to be seen as a sensible international player.

The other reason could be an implicit or explicit threat that if it did not play ball, the US would actively encourage Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to go nuclear. That is a nightmare scenario for China, which has eternally suffered from the obsession of being encircled by hostile adversaries.

It’s not that the Americans have been blind to the Chinese doublespeak. India has cried itself hoarse about the clandestine nuclear and missile programmes of Pakistan with Chinese and North Korean help. Even American intelligence agencies had submitted reports about the proliferation of these technologies and the North Korea-China-Pakistan nexus. However, realpolitik had then led successive US governments to ignore the reports. Besides, the honeymoon with India had not yet begun and Washington was willing to look the other way while China and others actively undermined the existing non-proliferation regime.

The US’ own policies have contributed in creating the deadly uncertainties that the world faces today. It was Bush who upped the ante with his “axis of evil” diatribe. And the fact is that the US had deliberately misled the world about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in order to attack Iraq. While North Korea is accused of not honouring its international obligations since it is a signatory to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT ), the US cared two hoots even while it provided wrong information to the Security Council, and thousands continue to die in a ‘civil-war’ ravaged Iraq.

Indeed, if the decision to go to war in Iraq was taken after the US was assured that Saddam Hussein did not possess any WMDs, what lessons should North Korea and Iran draw to avert a possible attack by Bush leading a neo-con regime and forever flexing his muscles?

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