The North Korean Bomb

By Jonathan Power

A big sigh of relief. The UN Security Council has approved the deal on Iran’s nuclear endeavours that commits Iran not to pursue a nuclear weapons’ capability. It also approved the lifting of sanctions on Iran.

The Republicans in the US Congress are the one remaining bastion against the ratification of this deal, but facing a Security Council decision supported by not just the US but also the other permanent members – Russia, the UK, France and China – it would be a brave Congress that would block the deal.

In fact with President Barack Obama ready to wield his veto that would override any Congressional resolution it couldn’t. Neither could a putative Republican president do anything about this fait accompli, embedded deeply in international law.

Now for the next deal which – if Obama continues to hurry at the pace he is now setting – Obama could wrap up before the end of his presidency. In swift succession he has resolved three major impasses – with Burma, Cuba and Iran. So now to North Korea which already possesses nuclear weapons – which it needn’t have if Republicans in Congress hadn’t sabotaged deals worked out by presidents George H.W Bush and Bill Clinton.

Recently Admiral William Gortney announced that it is now the US’s official assessment that North Korea is capable of mounting a miniaturized nuclear warhead atop an intercontinental ballistic missile, able to reach the US. Since the country’s relatively new president, Kim Jong-Un, behaves more dangerously than his father and grandfather, murdering his uncle, his close advisor, it is right to be scared and even more right to fast forward a deal that would halt further missile and bomb production.

The US’s position is that to restart negotiations North Korea must take steps towards denuclearization before talks can begin, and that talks must be focused only on convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear program completely rather than on limiting the progra

Negotiating is not the same as legitimizing it. Indeed doing nothing is a policy of “acceptance”.

The second wrong mind-set is that the US has now little leverage to persuade North Korea to go into reverse. To make things significantly better than they are this may be true, but the fact is the North Korean threat could get a lot worse, especially if it is true miniaturization is on the cards, (which despite Admiral Gortney’s announcement is not yet confirmed by US intelligence).

North Korea has yet to test either a long-range missile or a miniaturized warhead.

The US always maintains that North Korea is untrustworthy. It breaks deals. But think how it looks from their side – a string of broken undertakings.

For example, the US sunk the so-called “Agreed Framework” of 1994 which laid the basis for serious technical as well as political negotiations. The former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who rigidly opposes all liberal foreign policy developments, said of the discovery of North Korea’s centrifuge programne that “it was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework”.

As Liz Whitfield of the Carnegie Endowment has commented, “The centrifuge program was alarming, technically in violation of the 1994 deal”. But she points out it was only after this “shattering” that North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and developed nuclear weapons.

According to Robert Galluci, who was the head US negotiator at the time, North Korea would currently possess many more nuclear weapons if the Agreed Framework had not delayed their progress for so many years.

In previous years when negotiations made progress the Republicans consistently sabotaged promises made to win North Korea’s trust.

A food supply program was curtailed. So were funds to continue the building of a light water reactor which could produce electricity but not uranium or plutonium, necessary ingredients for a nuclear bomb. It sits half finished, a monument to a wasted opportunity and a reminder that a deal could have been made before one bomb was made.

Tragically, there is no likelihood that North Korea will put its nuclear weapons’ program into reverse. The only hope is to freeze the present situation and kick the can down the road in the hope that internal forces within North Korea might lead to regime change.

Meanwhile China, North Korea’s one remaining friend, will fight to keep Kim from doing anything too stupid. Since it controls much of the North’s trade it has a great deal of leverage and has made it clear to the US that in the final analysis it will use it. Until now it has been cautious, fearing a mass of refugees if North Korea is destabilized.

Obama, with Iran under his belt, has a lot of credibility. Working with the Chinese, a deal of some proportion could still be made.

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2015

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