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Resolution of North Korean Imbroglio

Cmde C. Uday Bhaskar (Retd) is former officiating Director of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • September 21, 2005

    The breakthrough achieved on September 19 at the six-party (US, North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan) talks in Beijing has the potential to satisfactorily resolve the North Korean nuclear imbroglio that has been festering since 2002 when Pyongyang unilaterally withdrew from the international agreements that it had entered into over its domestic nuclear programme.

    In the intervening three years, North Korea had been identified as part of the 'axis of evil' and the Bush administration has held a series of talks under the six party banner – in vain – till the breakthrough of September 19.

    Paradoxically, this encouraging development has come about at a time when the major nuclear powers are grappling with the Iranian nuclear issue and the perceived violations of treaty commitments by Tehran – an issue that is now being deliberated upon at the IAEA in Vienna.

    At the heart of both the issues lies the purported clandestine nuclear weapon programme being pursued by North Korea and Iran – which is a transgression of their non-nuclear weapon status as per the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that both states had voluntarily entered into.

    North Korea had withdrawn from the NPT in January 2003 – which is legally permissible – since it believed that its supreme national interest was being threatened by what it has often described as US hegemony in the region. Intelligence reports have referred to Pyongyang seeking to extract weapon grade fissile material from the spent fuel in its nuclear reactors and inspections by the IAEA have been suspended by North Korea which has taken recourse to self-imposed isolation.

    In the interim, Pyongyang had also declared that it has acquired nuclear weapons and this exigency can have tectonic implications in the tenuously maintained strategic balance of North East Asia with the possibility of Japan deciding to break its nuclear taboo – which would have a cascading effect in terms of the reaction from Beijing and Seoul.

    The nuclear issue itself has become more animated since 9/11 and the US determination about Iraq and its quest for weapons of mass destruction. Hence the urgent import accorded to North Korea and innumerable talks over the last three years have finally led to the current breakthrough – though it needs to be reiterated that these are a set of principles that have to be implemented by all concerned.

    This is not the first time that such a modus vivendi has been attempted and the Clinton administration tried in all sincerity – but failed with its energy cum security package.

    It may be premature to conclude that the North Korean issue has been resolved in a permanent manner and that NE Asia will finally find its own strategic equipoise. What have been agreed to are a set of principles and the phased manner of the implementation includes assuaging of the security anxieties of all the interlocutors – principally North Korea, US and Japan – and at a remove South Korea.

    In turn, North Korea will be offered an energy package enabled by South Korea and the culmination will be a verifiable dismantling of Pyongyang's nuclear weapon programme – and its final re-entry into the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state. Past experience would suggest that there can be mini obstacles and major hurdles to cross before the September 19 agreement is seen as a done deed. Certain differences have already cropped up over the light water reactors to be provided to North Korea and more banana peels will surface when the US Congress deals with the matter.

    However, what emerges from the North Korean success is the increasing relevance of China in playing the role of an effective peace-broker in matters nuclear. China's role in tacitly enabling North Korea in its nuclear-missile programmes is one of the more complex post-Cold war challenges and it is evident that Beijing is now demonstrating its ability to play the role of a 'responsible' power when it so desires. From the sequence of meetings held with North Korea over the last three years, one may infer that the US and its allies, including Russia, were not in a position to prevail upon Pyongyang – and Beijing's intervention was necessary. The related extrapolation is that just as China's economic and trade relevance is now acknowledged within the region – and beyond – its strategic footprint is also being enhanced in a calibrated manner.

    With North Korea moving towards a putative, consensual resolution, global attention will now shift to Iran, which is of more immediate and proximate relevance to India. Unlike the North Korean case, there are many divergences as far as Iran is concerned. While being an NPT signatory as a non-nuclear weapon state, Tehran has never claimed that it is seeking nuclear weapons or threatened to leave the NPT fold - actions that Pyongyang took. Most intelligence estimates suggest that Iran has been pursuing a covert programme for about 15 years as regards enrichment that goes beyond the rubric of peaceful use of nuclear energy and Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf recently admitted that the AQ Khan network had indeed enabled Iran in its covert nuclear programme.

    Thus there is a great deal of opacity about the Iranian nuclear profile and Tehran has refused to accept greater intrusive inspections in its domestic nuclear facilities. Consequently, the global community led by the US is seeking to have the matter referred to the UN Security Council for a more robust and muscular response to contain nuclear proliferation and the matter is still being deliberated upon within the IAEA. Interestingly, while the US and the EU states have taken a certain position apropos the Iranian nuclear programme and Russia is veering around to the same, China has been very circumspect – till now. Whether China will enable Iran to acquire rudimentary nuclear weapon capability or join the other declared nuclear weapon powers in persuading Tehran to emulate Pyongyang will perhaps be the swing factor in the Iranian impasse. The deeper contestation is one between the US and China about whose influence will prevail in the volatile southern Asian region, which, apart from its hydrocarbon index, is emerging as the new theatre of strategic relevance. It is currently animated by the triad of critical global determinants – namely terrorism and religious radicalism, nuclear proliferation and energy stability. India is still a tangential player in these deliberations but it will have to monitor them with the utmost care. North Korea may yet be the lull before a still brewing tempest.