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Friday, 10 January, 2003, 15:58 GMT
Analysis: Crisis replay?
N Korean soldiers
A 1993 nuclear stand-off raised fears of war

North Korea's announcement that it is to pull out of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has shocked the international community.

But it is a diplomatic crisis we have been through before.

In March 1993, faced with accusations it had been cheating of its NPT commitments, North Korea announced it was withdrawing from the treaty.

Former US President Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton was more willing to engage with N Korea
Then, as now, the prospect of an erratic and isolated state being free to develop nuclear weapons was extremely alarming.

But on that occasion a crisis was averted. Following talks with the US, North Korea announced it was suspending its decision to leave the NPT.

But will that be the outcome this time? Can we expect another showdown, and then another diplomatic solution?

World shift

Analysts point out that much has changed in the last 10 years.

In 1993, then US President Bill Clinton's Democratic administration supported engagement with the North, though Mr Clinton has subsequently said the US was also prepared for war.

Negotiations between the two sides not only staved off a nuclear crisis, but led to the only ever treaty between Washington and Pyongyang - the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Bush truly feels it is an evil regime

Gary Samore, IISS
The Bush leadership, by contrast, has taken a far harder line against a state it labelled a member of an "axis of evil".

"The US administration is... ideologically less willing to deal with North Korea... unwilling to deal with rogue states, unwilling to give concessions in recognition of good behaviour," Tat Yan Kong, lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) told BBC News Online.

Gary Samore, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, stressed that "Bush truly feels it is an evil regime," and is "reluctant to... help to sustain this government".

Allies weaken

But how much support does Washington have in the region for this approach?

China and Russia are North Korea's closest allies. But, according to Marcus Noland, of the International Institute for Economics, these countries' sympathy for Pyongyang is fading.

"While not firmly in the US camp at this point, (they) are considerably less sympathetic towards North Korea now than they were," he told the BBC.

Meanwhile, South Korea has warmed considerably to the North over the last 10 years.

There is no way (the US) can militarily solve this problem

Jim Foley, Sheffield University
In that period, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung has introduced and established his "sunshine policy" of engagement and talks.

Given South Korea's increased diplomatic relevance, the US has to be seen to be taking its ally's more conciliatory approach seriously.

Familiar scenario

Despite these regional shifts and changes, the fundamentals of the crisis are strikingly familiar.

North Korea is still an unpredictable state facing economic ruin, and it still has a million-strong army and thousands of artillery pieces trained on the South Korean capital Seoul.

Pyongyang's use of the nuclear card is also not surprising, since it is one of the few ways it can influence the outside world.

Mr Samore said Pyongyang's recent moves were simply an "effort to repeat the 93-4 crisis... to force the US to negotiate", in order to secure aid.

The US has so far said it will not negotiate with North Korea.

But it appears to have little choice, since analysts agree a military response is out of the question.

"Despite the US rhetoric, it has no military option in North Korea," said Asia specialist Jim Foley, at Sheffield University.

"There is no way they can militarily solve this problem," he said.

He said the following factors ruled this out:

  • North Korea's massive conventional forces would be "no pushover".
  • An attack on the North would receive no support from the vulnerable South
  • China still has a defence treaty with the North which affords the two mutual protection

There were therefore two options for the US, Mr Foley said.

The first one - to isolate and contain North Korea - had no support from the US' regional allies. The more likely option was engagement, he concluded.

Saving face

But Mr Samore stressed that Washington has backed itself into a corner by repeatedly stating that it refuses to negotiate directly with North Korea.

It therefore may choose to "save face" by employing a diplomatic device such as it did in 1993, when it argued that a UN Security Council resolution obliged it to negotiate.

If the US does explore negotiations, analysts agree that they will use them, not necessarily as a means of progressing relations, so much as a vehicle to freeze North Korea's current nuclear abilities.

Mr Foley admitted that there is little support for such engagement within Congress, especially as North Korea is already seen to have reneged on the 1994 deal.

But "if anything, (the current US administration) is supposed to be pragmatic, and they'll just have to bite the bullet and get round the table", he said.

Nuclear tensions

Inside North Korea

Divided peninsula

See also:

10 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
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13 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
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