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 Tuesday, 24 December, 2002, 18:36 GMT
Analysis: North Korea - a time bomb
North Korean soldier looks over the border toward South Korea
North Korean muscle-flexing threatens region's stability

North Korea is a crisis that just won't go away. And it could get worse.

Even though a number of experts have said that the government of the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il is engaging in a political game of brinksmanship, it is nevertheless getting nearer and nearer to producing a nuclear bomb.

According to Dr Gary Samore of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the Yongbyon plant which it has re-opened could start producing plutonium for a bomb in about a year.

[Attacking us would be like] jumping in the fire holding wood

North Korea radio on 24 December

That is the deadline, therefore, for a diplomatic solution. It does allow time, but not much, given the complex nature of the crisis.

And if North Korea does make the bomb, the whole equation in the region will change.

North Korea is unlikely to give it up. South Korea and Japan might well think of following the same path.

That is, if the United States has not attacked the North first. That by itself could provoke a new Korean war.

No wonder that the United States, preoccupied with Iraq, is willing to follow diplomacy over North Korea.

Although, as the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asserted, the United States could fight two wars at the same time, it obviously does not want to do so.

There will clearly have to be a huge effort made, and very soon, to get the whole 1994 agreement with North Korea restarted.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Pyongyang in 2000
Two years ago US relations with the North seemed to be improving
Under that agreement, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for the construction of two modern nuclear plants to provide it with electricity.

According to the "political" theory, North Korea has been very dissatisfied with the 1994 agreement because the two nuclear plants were started only this past summer, long overdue.

Survival strategy

And it has had problems in getting the supplies of fuel oil promised by the United States to tide it over.

That oil was stopped altogether following North Korea's admission in October - according to the Americans - that it was re-embarking on its nuclear weapons development.

The suspicious North Korean leadership, having seen the fate of communist dictatorships elsewhere and the possible fate of Saddam Hussein, detects plots to remove it from power.

This means that it doesn't just conduct diplomacy; it conducts a strategy of survival. Always ready to increase the pressure and go to the brink.

Its rhetoric, as colourful as anything from the past 50 years, gives a clue to its mentality.

Its radio commentary on 24 December accused the "Bush group" as it calls President Bush and his administration, of trying "to achieve its evil plot of militarily crushing us."

"There is no belligerent band of thieves in the world like the Bush group," it declared.

Aerial view of the Yongbyon plant
The North has begun reactivating facilities at Yongbyon plant
But it warned the United States against attacking North Korea, which would be like "jumping in the fire holding wood", presumably an old Korean proverb, and readily understood everywhere.

Nobody doubts that North Korea would use the firepower of its million-man army in any war. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is within artillery range.

The North's offered solution - a non-aggression pact with the United States - has been rejected by Washington.

No American government likes "non-aggression pacts".

Communist governments have traditionally offered them. The West has traditionally rejected them, arguing that they are either unnecessary or would give inviolability to a dangerous government.

Peace trip?

An armed conflict cannot be ruled out. President Clinton prepared an attack on the North's nuclear facilities in 1994, it has recently emerged, and according to the South Koreans, was only persuaded not to carry it out after appeals from them.

It was in 1994 that former US President Jimmy Carter went to North Korea and negotiated the freeze-for-reactors deal which was later signed in Geneva.

Jimmy Carter has now won the Nobel Peace prize. Time maybe for another trip to Pyongyang?

The newly elected South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is also likely to urge negotiations. He came to power partly on anti-American sentiment.

It is always a matter of regret to the Americans that those they seek to defend (there are 30,000 troops in South Korea) often turn against them.

But talk has so far got nowhere.

And if a war in Iraq goes well for the United States, it could then be ready for a confrontation with North Korea.

It might not want one, but one might be thrust upon it.

Nuclear tensions

Inside North Korea

Divided peninsula

See also:

22 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
15 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
12 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
24 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
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