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North Korea: Have we gone back to the future?
NewsNotes, May-June 2009

The more things change in North Korea, the more things remain the same. After conducting a nuclear test in 2006, the country agreed to abandon its nuclear program in return for oil shipments. Last year North Korea imploded the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear plant and agreed to verification measures, and the Bush administration removed the country from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. However, after its April 5 rocket launch over Japan – and the worldwide denunciation that followed – North Korea kicked out nuclear inspectors and pledged to rebuild its nuclear program.

The math is clear. In 1998 North Korea launched a missile over Japan that splashed down after flying about 820 miles, demonstrating a potential weapons delivery system. Tokyo is 800 miles from Pyongyang, and Seoul a mere 121 miles. The missile launch in April this year was purportedly aimed at putting a communications satellite into orbit. However, some observers believe the effort, which apparently ended in failure, was actually a test to see if U.S. shores were within reach of North Korea missiles.

Six-party talks began in 2003 among North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the U.S. in an effort to end North Korea’s nuclear program. Irate at the international outcry after its April missile launch, however, North Korea withdrew from the talks. While analysts disagree over the rationale for the April 5 launching, the potential fall-out is worrisome. By setting its neighbors on edge, North Korea could be fueling an Asian arms race besides inviting punitive measures.

South Korea said it might reconsider its commitment not to build long-range missiles. It is a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which bars the export of technology for missiles able to carry nuclear warheads further than 300 kilometers (186 miles). The MTCR does not bar development of longer-range missiles, but South Korea had agreed to a U.S. request not to do so.

South Korea also said it was considering joining the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, in which nearly 100 countries are committed to putting an end to trafficking in weapons of mass destruction and related technology. The step would make it more difficult for North Korea to ship missiles and components to other countries.

While Japan’s Peace Constitution restricts the use of its armed forces to defense, North Korea’s recent action could strengthen the position of those calling for a change in the charter. Japan has already sent hundreds of troops to Iraq in a non-combat role, and it continues to support U.S. forces in Afghanistan with a refueling mission in the Indian Ocean. Recently it dispatched two naval ships to help battle pirates off the Somali coast.

China, which probably has the most influence with North Korea, does not want another nuclear-armed neighbor, but it has been reluctant to criticize the regime. North Korea’s trade deficit with China reportedly exceeded $1 billion last year. China might also be wary of creating more instability in North Korea following concerns about the health of its leader, Kim Jong-il, who some reports say suffered a stroke last year.

Assessing the aims of North Korea’s “Dear Leader” seems beyond the ken of Western observers. With the prestige a nuclear arsenal lends his regime, Kim might seem unlikely to exchange it for heating oil. Yet, even in better economic times nuclear weapons and a large standing army (North Korea has the world’s fourth largest) consume financial resources badly needed for food, housing, industry and other sectors. The foreign policy of Kim’s wealthy Asian neighbor Japan – and two Latin American countries – might give him food for thought.

Japan’s Peace Constitution, adopted in 1947, provides in Article 9 that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” Costa Rica adopted a Constitution two years later that states in Article 12, “The Army as a permanent institution is abolished.” Bolivia adopted a new Constitution this year whose Article 10 declares that it “promotes a culture of peace and the right to peace … rejects any war of aggression as a way of settling disputes between states, and … prohibits the installation of foreign military bases on [its] soil.” For the first time, President Evo Morales said Jan. 29, “basic services, water, electricity, telephone are now a human right ... a public service, not a private business.”

Such human progress augurs well for a future full of hope for countries on every continent – including, in time, North Korea.

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