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Thursday, 12 December, 2002, 12:32 GMT
Analysis: Korea's nuclear bombshell
President Kim Jong-Il
President Kim's decision makes nuclear deals obsolete

North Korea's decision to reactivate its nuclear power programme effectively marks the end of the so-called "Agreed Framework" of 1994.

Under that deal North Korea was to end all of its existing nuclear activities and in return would receive two brand-new nuclear reactors to generate electricity.

This deal between Pyongyang and the United States, largely financed by South Korea and Japan, was hailed as a solution to the growing concerns about Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

In the interim, until the new reactors came on line, North Korea was to receive regular supplies of heavy fuel oil.

US spat

But in October came a bombshell from Washington.

The US revealed that in a bilateral meeting with North Korean officials Washington had pressed the North Korean side with evidence of continuing suspect activities.

US envoy James Kelly
The US says the North admitted its arms programme
The North Korean response - say the Americans - was to admit to having a parallel nuclear programme that was well under way.

In public, the North Koreans have insisted that they are entitled to have nuclear weapons for self-defence - a claim that flies in the face of their obligations as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

America's response was to halt fuel oil deliveries. Pyongyang has now said its original nuclear programme will be restarted in response to the end of fuel aid.

Some US officials believe North Korea may already have a small number of nuclear weapons.

Certainly, Pyongyang's ambitious missile development programmes give its neighbours cause for concern, quite apart from its efforts to market ballistic missiles, which were illustrated by this week's interception of a ship in the Arabian Sea.

What's behind it?

The real question is what is behind North Korea's more strident attitude?

Some US experts believe it is a response to a tougher line from Washington.

According to this view, the 1994 Agreed Framework was the best way forward even if there were inevitable bumps on the road.

Clinton-era officials say a deal was possible even to halt North Korean missile exports, but that the incoming Bush administration missed the opportunity to engage with Pyongyang.

More conservative voices in Washington take a different view.

They point to the 1994 deal and North Korea's recent revelations as a sign that Pyongyang wants to have its nuclear cake and eat it.

In other words North Korea wants to pocket the benefits of any diplomatic compromise while continuing with its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

Regional implications

Whatever the truth behind these conflicting views of the Bush Administration's approach the fact is that this is not just a matter for Washington.

It has to take into account the positions of the Japanese and South Korean governments who, generally, have been much more willing to engage with Pyongyang.

The nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula is deepening. But in a way the crisis is as much about the fate of the Communist regime in North Korea as it is about nuclear weaponry.

Will it gradually open up to its neighbours and the world and perhaps inevitably sow the seeds of its own collapse?

Or will it remain beleaguered and isolated, perhaps collapsing anyway?

What's clear is that the last thing the Bush administration needs right now is a major crisis with North Korea.

Nuclear tensions

Inside North Korea

Divided peninsula

See also:

12 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
12 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
11 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
22 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
15 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
18 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
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