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The North Korean Syndrome- Talk,Test, Talk Again,Test Again

Years before 2006, North Korea had a tested medium-range missile capability and was developing a long-range capability which could hit targets in the US. If its objective was only to have the capability to target South Korea and Japan, it did not need a long-range capability. It wanted the long-range capability to intimidate and threaten the US. But its economy was in such a bad shape that it did not have the money to spend on its missile programme.

2. And that money came from Pakistan and Iran. They funded research and development of the North Korean missile programme as a quid pro quo for North Korea’s sharing its expertise and technology with them and selling to them some of the missiles. The Pakistan-North Korea missile development co-operation started clandestinely in 1993 when Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister, but it came to public notice in 1998 when Pakistan tested its so-called Ghauri missile, which was nothing but a re-baptised version of a North Korean missile. Benazir Bhutto, who was then in the opposition, publicly claimed credit for giving Pakistan a deterrent capability against India by persuading North Korea during a clandestine visit from Beijing in 1993 to co-operate with Pakistan in missile development. Around the same time, reports also started coming in of Iran’s missile procurement relationship with North Korea.

3.When Pervez Musharraf was the President of Pakistan, it had carried out a number of firings of medium and long-range missiles capable of hitting the major cities of India. These were not test firings. These were firings meant to demonstrate Pakistan’s possession of such missiles and to psychologically intimidate India. I had pointed out on many occasions that Pakistan’s action in carrying out so many demonstration firings spoke of the large stock of missiles which it has got from North Korea. Even Osama bin Laden, in one of his messages, taunted Musharraf for ordering a demonstration firing of a missile whenever he was facing difficulty at home.

4. Around the same time, Iran started emulating Pakistan by carrying out demonstration firings of missiles in order to psychologically intimidate Israel. Apart from oral warnings and threats to board North Korean ships suspected of carrying prohibited equipment to other countries, the US did nothing.Even if one can understand its inability to act against North Korea due to a fear of an irresponsible state like North Korea provoking a war in the Korean region, one failed to understand its inability to act against Pakistan and to encourage Israel to similarly act against Iran.

5.In 2003, the international community learnt with shock and surprise that Pakistan’s weapons of mass destruction capability relationship with North Korea was not confined to missiles, but also covered military nuclear capability.A.Q.Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist, was found to have supplied nuclear-related eqipment and technology not only to Iran and Libya, two Muslim countries, but also to North Korea. It was a nuclear-missile barter relationship. This relationship had continued at least till the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan in 1999 when, according to Khan’s own admission to some journalists, Musharraf sent him to North Korea to procure urgently some surface-to-air missiles.

6. When all these factors came to notice one after the other since Pakistan’s firing of the Ghauri missile in April,1998, the US had three options:

Act against North Korea through a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear and missile production facilities . It did not do so due to a fear of the unpredictable behaviour of North Korea which could have led to a war in the Korean region. Act against Pakistan in order to penalise it for its relations with North Korea and to force it to terminate its relationship. This might not have forced North Korea to stop its programme, but it might have slowed down its programme due to financial difficulties. It would have also given some indication of the US resolve to act.The US did nothing.After 9/11, co-operation ftrom Pakistan against Al Qaeda assumed greater importance for US policy-makers than options of action to stop North Korea from acquiring a military nuclear capability. Similarly, act against Iran or encourage Israel to act. From time to time, statements were made that all options were open—-meaning even a military strike against the nuclear establishments in Iran. In the case of powers such as North Korea and Iran, empty warnings without a demonstration of the resolve to act create only contempt. 7. All eggs were put in the basket of the six-power talks, which were marked by a faith in the ability and readiness of China to make North Korea behave. North Korea skilfully adopted a strategem of “Talk, test, talk again, test again”. It will seemingly co-operate with the talks, agree to some denuclearisation measures, then break the agreement under some pretext, test, then agree to talk again, then break the talks again under some other pretext and then test again. This has been going on for some years now. 8. The result:North Korea is a demonstrated nuclear power with a delivery capability at least against South Korea and Japan, if not yet against the US. It has carried out two tests, with the second one earlier in May,2009, reportedly being more powerful and more sophisticated than the first one in 2006. It has reportedly re-started the re-processing of spent fuel rods which would add to its stockpile of fissile material.

9. Pre-emption is no longer an option. Can North Korea be pressured or cajoled through China to come back to the negotiating table and to renew its commitment to the denuclearisation path? Even if one succeeds, it is very likely that after some talks, it will break the agreement reached under some other pretext. It broke the last agreement under the pretext that the UN imposed sanctions against it for allegedly testing a communication satellite. The next time, it will find some other pretext.

10. All US administrations have fought shy of a confrontation with North Korea. The Barack Obama administration even more so than its predecessors. The North Korean leadership has concluded that not only the US, but even Japan and South Korea do not have the stomach for a policy of confrontation. It, therefore, feels it does not have to fear either pre-emption or confrontation.

11. There is one option still left—- threaten China with the danger of the international community closing its eyes to Japan acquiring a military nuclear capability if China does not force North Korea to de-nuclearise. Will it work? It may or may not, but in the absence of any other options, it is well worth giving a try.

12. Even while struggling and juggling with various options available against North Korea, it is important for the Obama Administration to remember that Teheran is closely watching how Obama handles North Korea. Any sign of further weakness and accommodation with North Korea could encourage Iran in its nuclear obstinacy. This is definitely not the time for the Obama Administration to convey a wrong message to Iran that ties between the US and Israel are weakening. The US will end up by undermining a steadfast ally for the sake of better relations with an unpredictable country. The US may have valid reasons for improving its relations with Iran, but this should not be at the expense of its relations with Israel.

(The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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