Sunday, October 22, 2006

North Korea and Nuclear Proliferation

The news that North Korea had exploded an underground nuclear test on 9th October, directed attention to this weird little anachronism of a state, which, against all the odds, has survived the collapse of old style communist regimes.

Even before its creation in 1948, N. Korea’s earlier history had been dominated by China, though as part of a separate state. Korea was unified under the Shila dynasty in the 7th century. The Mongols invaded in 1231 but a period of stability under the Yi dynasty stretched from 1392 to 1910; Seoul was the capital and Confucianism the religion. Following the Russo-Japanese war 1904-5, Korea became a Japanese protectorate and was annexed in 1910, its enforced industrialization provoking much resentment. After Japan’s defeat in WWII, Korea was divided up into north and south zones of occupation, with Soviet forces north of the 38th parallel and US to the south. As with Germany, attempts are re-unification failed, and two separate states emerged in 1948: Republic of Korea in the south and Democratic People’s Republic (DPNK) in the north. In June 1950 the north invaded the south resulting in millions of deaths and much devastation 1950-53. A Demilitarized Zone separates the two countries to this day. Attempts to negotiate a formal peace have all failed and both states are theoretically still at war. Since those days, South Korea has prospered economically while the north has languished into extreme poverty. Much of the responsibility for this must go to the nature of the north’s political regime.

Political Background
From 1948 the north’s communist regime was led by Kim IL Sung along rigid Stalinist lines with complete state control of the economy: heavy industry nationalized and agriculture collectivized. After the Korean War Kim introduced his personal philosophy of ‘Juche’ or self reliance which was intended as a guide for the nation as a whole. Kim built up an extreme cult of personality, which after his death has been followed by his son, Kim Jong-il who became Secretary General of the Korean Workers Party 8th October 1997. He became effective dictator, in place of his father a year later. It seems odd that NK should have been so insulated from events in other communist countries but, rather, this is a measure of how effective the leadership has been at keeping some 20million people ignorant of the outside world- just as Stalin did the USSR. Ostensibly NK used to be Marxist-Leninist but during the 70s most such references were replaced by Jouche ones.
A professor at the American Strategic Studies Institute has characterized NK as
"highly repressive, heavily militarized, strongly resistant to reform, and ruled by a dynastic dictatorship that adheres to a hybrid ideology. While distinctive, North Korea is an orthodox communist party-state best classified as an eroding totalitarian regime."
A parliament of 687 representatrives is elected for fiv year terms but in every district voters are offered only one candidate. Most observers see it as a rubber stamp for the KWP’s decisions.

Kim il Sung (1912-94)
Kim belonged to a Soviet battalion comnprising exiles from China and Korea; he returned to NK in 1945 and became prime minister in 1948, of what soon became a Stalinist regime. He ruthlessly purged his opponents and invented a cult of personality, insisting on being called The Great Leader and having almost supernatural powers attributed to him. During the Vietnam War he tried, without success to inflitrate South Korea to subvert it. Gradually his regime became isolated and regarded as eccentric even by allies. But he was careful to baalnce support for China with support for USSR, shifting to the atter during the Cultural Revolution. Once the economy of China freed up after Mao China had less reason to be involved economically with NK. Towards the end of his life he developed a large growth on the back of his neck which he did not allow to be shown in photographs, but he died of a heart attack in 1994

Kim Jong-il(1942-)
Was born in Siberia- his birth foretold, according to his official biography by: a swallow, two rainbows and new star in the heavens. Graduated in political economy in 1964 from Kim il Sung University; he learnt English while at Malta University during the 70s. His brother Kim Pyong was sent by his father as ambassador to eastern Europe to avoid power struggles with the favoured son. Kim is known to be vain-viz bouffant hair- and not unaddicted to western dissipations like girls, fast cars and cognac.

This cult is buttressed by the media; radios and TVs receive only two pre-tuned official stations, which constantly laud and praise the astonishing qualities of the nation’s Great Leader. The regime has been dubbed the world’s worst violator of press freedom by Reporters Without Frontiers. Anyone caught listening to foreign broadcasts risk heavy prison sentences with forced labour. Only the most senior military and party cadres are allowed to access the internet; but news of the outside world is filtering in via the Chinese border and this puts the regime at risk as NK citizens begin to realize how desperately poorly they are living.

Despite the fact that over 80 per cent of its land is mountainous, NK is rich in mineral resources including coal, copper, iron, lead, tin, tungsten and zinc. Agriculture employs 40 per cent of the population-with rice the main crop- but food and energy still has to be imported, mostly from China. The economy is characterized by strong central control of the kind which made communist countries so vulnerable to implosion in the late eighties. In 1992 GDP was calculated at $3, 026, which compared with £9,250 for its southern neighbour. Industry includes textiles, chemicals, iron and steel and processed foods. Natural disasters, including disastrous floods in the 90s, revealed how inefficient the economy, with its obsolete infrastructure really was and during one period 2-3 million died from starvation. Between 1999 and 2000 USA provided half a million tons of food via charitable organizations. From the early 70s onwards NK became a debtor nation which defaulted on what it owed to the IMF, Japan and the then USSR. It now owes some $10-12 billion. GDP per person slumped to a third of the south’s. Most of this disparity is explained by the disproportionate amount of resources channeled into the military: about 25 per cent of annual spending. Paradoxically NK does not levy taxes.
Since 2004 links with the south began to multiply and trade increased substantially. Daewoo and Hynundai set up businesses in NK while rail and road links were established. NK’s low living standards puts the regime seriously at risk of collapse.

Illegal Activities
Western governments frequently accuse NK of illegal activities like kidnapping South Koreans and Japanese; drug manufacture and trafficking; counterfeit cigarettes, forging very good versions of US dollars, weapons technology and maybe even selling weapons to terrorist groups. It was alleged, for example, that NK sold Scud missiles to Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War. All this foreign currency is used to keep the elite living in luxury, especially the Great Leader who has a weakness for young girls, Mercedes cars, Rolexes and cognac. The army in particular benefits from these illegal activities as part of Kim’s attempts to keep it on side.

Huge expenditures have been funneled into the military so that the DPNK has the highest percentage of its population enlisted of any country in the world: 50 per 1000. The armed forces comprise 1.1 million personnel. Whilst the navy is not especially modern or effective, the air-force numbers 1620 aircraft, twice the size of the south. The regime also commands a fair stockpile of short, medium range and long range surface to surface missiles including Scuds, Nodongs and Taepodongs, all capable of carrying nuclear war heads.

Foreign Relations
As already mentioned, China and USSR were the great sponsors of NK and Kim was wary of antagonizing either source of support. China looks with some envy, according to some, at NK’s rich mineral resources and favours closer economic ties up to a point. Japan also tries to balance relations with China and now Russia but is worried lest NK become too powerful with such unpredictable leadership. A Nuclear armed NK would be especially worrisome. China worries lest refugees from NK increase in great numbers. Already some one third of a million have fled into China and the fear is that demands might grow for re-drawings of boundaries near the border.NK leadership views of China has changed since the post Mao reforms which have welcomed in overseas trade and influences. This is inimical to the traditions of Stalinist NK. China has responded to the less warm attitude by reducing food aid, a crucial measure as NK cannot feed its 20 million people.USA has long regarded NK as a ‘rogue state’ supplying terrorists with weapons to earn foreign currency. In 2002 George Bush made a speech in which he said states like Iraq, Iran and North Korea:

‘and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.’

Such a statement alarmed NK and Kim has been concerned to improve his bargaining strength with the USA. The USA was keen on Six Power talks involving Russia, japan, China and South korea as well as US and NK. But NK preferred bilateral talks to this more regional assembly of power centres.

Nuclear Weapons Programme
Kim Jong-il was placed in charge of a programme to produce nuclear weapons by his father, so the ambition to become nuclear is longstanding. It has been known for a while NK could produce plutonium through its nuclear reactors acquired in late 80s. In 1994 an Agreed Framework was established between NK and USA whereby the former agreed to dismantle plutonium capacity in exchange for other forms of nuclear energy capacity plus additional aid. However, relations did not improve and after Iraq, NK began to fear Bush would order a unilateral attack on its territory or installations, either by aerial bombardment or via its proxy, South Korea. This fear no doubt led Kim to calculate that if he already had nuclear weapons, such an attack would be less likely as the US would surely shrink from a possible nuclear war, even with a tiny impoverished country like North Korea. In 2003 came NK’s decision to leave the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) on top of its earlier refusal to allow IAEA inspectors into its territory. This game of high stakes poker of NK threatening to go nuclear with USA counter-threatening to bomb installations, had been going on for a number of years. But the factor which perhaps ‘threw the switch’ was unconnected with the military but concerned domestic banking.

Banco Delta Asia
As Simon Tisdall in he Guardian 16th October reported, some twelve months ago on 15th September, 2005, it seemed as if the NK nuclear problem had been solved. Kim pledged to give up his nukes and abandon his nuclear programme before joining the NPT he had left in 2003. In exchange the US promised to recognize NK’s territorial integrity and to cease any hostile activities; in other words, the implicit threat of regime change embodied in the ‘axis of evil’ speech was made null and void. Other economic aid was in the pipeline too and a ‘triumph of US foreign policy was tentatively being praised. Too late.
For no good apparent reason, the US Treasury chose to make its move right then into the Macau based Banco Delta Asia (BDA) on the grounds that it was being used by NK for money laundering, counterfeiting and other of NK’s ‘criminal activities’.

Other regional banks took fright and terminated dealings with NK. Macau took over the bank to investigate and closed down all accounts related to NK; 11 NK banks and 9 individuals were affected. Millions of dollars were frozen. This had huge implications and repercussions for NK’s economy which desperately needed loans and aid. Without realizing the US treasury had dealt NK a body blow; ‘we didn’t expect to hit a major artery like this’ said one official. Tisdall argues that this was the trigger to the test; NK had to up the stakes, make US realize there was real danger here and set up the old poker game once again.

NK has said it will boycott further nuclear talks until US relinquished financial sanctions. US officials insist the financial measures were not connected to the nuclear talks but obviously NK thinks otherwise. It could also be the case that the corrupt official and military elite fear their source of foreign currency might be drying up and are desperate to secure their status and positions.

The Test and its Repercussions
The 9th October test, 70 miles from the Chinese border, presaged merely by a 20 minute warning, caused a sensation but its authenticity was initially doubted until tests on 16th confirmed it as genuine; nevertheless, its minuscule size- about one megaton- led some to doubt whether it was wholly successful. China was somewhat outraged and called it ‘brazen’- after all, China sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives in 1950-53 war and has provided much material and diplomatic assistance over the years. It was especially annoyed that its patient support fro six party talks has been sabotaged It may even scrap its ‘treaty of friendship’ with NK signed in 1961 which commits China to defend NK if attacked. Bush condemned it as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘provocative’. South Korea began to strengthen its defences and Japan to re-examine its pacifist constitution.

However, China is not keen to provoke instability in the country with which it shares a 1400 km border. 20 million starving people so close by would create a whole range of difficult problems; already it has received hundreds of thousands refugees and now sends them back where they are imprisoned or executed. In the event of a collapse or civil war, would China invade? Would it take control? Even annex? What would this do to relations with Japan, which are currently improving rapidly? Would South Korea and USA stand by and watch or intervene? At the same time China worries that a Korea united from the south would be awkward to deal with, despite much loser economic ties with the south which channels billions of investment into China. Japan reacted toughly to the test, banning NK ships from its ports and cutting off all imports; as NK’s third biggest trading partner, this measure will hurt.

UN Action
On 15th October the Security Council passed unanimously a resolution imposing sanctions on NK in response to its test which it described as a ‘clear threat to international security’. The resolution demands the elimination of all its nuclear weapons but explicitly rules out military sanctions, in deference to China and Russia’s insistence. Imports and export of material useful for the construction of nuclear weapons is also banned and the world is asked to freeze NK assets and ban travel for those connected to the weapons programme. Bush, backed up by the combative John Bolton US ambassador to the UN, warned of even tougher measures if NK does not comply but also offered the possibility of economic assistance if it did. NK bluntly rejected the UN demands, accusing it of ‘double standards’ and caving in to US demands. However, China and ohers are still unsure about endorsing inspections of shipping entering and leaving NK.

Implications for Nuclear Proliferation
In his State of the Union message 2002 Bush aimed to prevent rogue regimes acquiring nuclear weapons. But his invasion of Iraq produced none, he has been unable to prevent Iran from forging ahead with its own programme and then North Korea thumbed its nose at him on 9th October. In the early 60s John Kennedy predicted that by the end of the decade there would be 25 nuclear powers. That there are only nine almost half a century later is a sign of how successful the NPT has been But the treaty has been eroded badly:
a) Israel, India and Pakistan did not sign the treaty and acquired their own weapons with consequent effects on regional instability in the sub continent.
b) Nuclear physics is now pretty well known and now, according to the Economist 14th October some 40 countries have the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons. Japan could probably do so in a matter of months.
c) Under the old NPT the nuclear powers promised to work towards getting rid of their weapons and in exchange the rest of the signatories promised to limit themselves to peaceful usage. As the ‘Nuclear Club’ seems to have made no move in the direction of abolition this has not encouraged others to maintain the purity of intention required by the NPT.
d) Inspections are vital to ensure treaty terms are being kept yet nations suspected of transgressing can delay and disguise or even deny. Iraq’s nuclear preparations for example were not picked up in the 1980s.
e) The US itself has ended sanctions against India, imposed in 1998 after its test, so other nations might believe the NPT can be broached with impunity. Now a nuclear cooperation deal has been signed between the US and India. If Congress approves this deal, this would legitimize a clear breech of the NPT.

NK nuclear weapons will cause a flurry of concern in South East Asia with South Korea, Japan and even Taiwan casting their eyes on possible nuclear weapons capacity. The world has suddenly become an even more dangerous place.

Bill Jones


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