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The Nuclear Problem Is Back With a Vengeance--and It May Worsen

November 24, 1996|Robert A. Manning | Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, was a State Department policy advisor from 1989-93

WASHINGTON — It has barely gotten a mention in the media, what with President Bill Clinton jaunting around the Pacific outlining the themes of his Asia policy and meeting Asian leaders. But an Asian problem the administration declared solved and billboarded as one of its shining foreign-policy successes--curbing North Korea's nuclear-weapons program--is back in spades. Two years after the United States reached an accord freezing Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities, a paradox rules: The nuclear agreement has, so far, been more successful than many imagined, yet the Korean Peninsula is closer to armed conflict than at any time in the past quarter century.

How can this be so? The answer lies in the unraveling of a key assumption underlying the accord.

When the United States and North Korea signed the "agreed framework" in October 1994, it was viewed as more than a pact suspending Pyongyang's nuclear program in exchange for heavy oil and two light-water reactors. It was also a piece of a larger policy. North Korea would open up its moribund economy, which has suffered through six consecutive years of decline, to U.S. and South Korean investment, trade and aid. The regime in Pyongyang would stabilize, and a gradual process leading to eventual reunification would unfold.

That scenario now seems quixotic. Pyongyang has, until recently, fully cooperated in shutting down its known nuclear program. But it has not let much international light into the world's most closed society. Nor has there been any progress in easing tensions between North and South Korea, despite two years of floods and famine that threaten starvation for tens of thousands.

The hostility ratcheted up when a North Korean submarine ran aground near South Korean shores in late September. According to well-placed U.S. sources, the submarine was on a routine reconnaissance and infiltration mission when it hit a rock. Twenty-six North Korean agents and special forces went ashore. A six-week manhunt, involving 60,000 South Korean troops, led to the death or capture of all but one crew member, who remains at large. Fifteen South Koreans died in the pursuit.

The sub incident pushed South Korea over the edge. During a recent visit to Korea, I was struck by how widespread the anger is, from the top levels of the South Korean government to the Korean in the street. President Kim Young Sam has taken a hard line and halted all cooperation with North Korea, including implementation of the nuclear accord, until Pyongyang apologizes and promises to end all such missions. Yet, Seoul has also hinted that it may offer some generous help if North Korea does so.

North Korea has not only expressed no regrets, but has growled that "serious consequences" will follow if its submarine is not returned. Worse still, and faithful to its penchant for brinkmanship, Pyongyang has threatened to break the nuclear agreement if plans to build the two light-water reactors are not carried forward and if the United States halts shipment of the 500,000 tons of heavy oil annually called for in the accord.

To be blunt about it, another nuclear crisis is brewing, and this time around, it will be much worse. For starters, the new imbroglio is complicated by a humanitarian emergency in North Korea. A second year of horrible floods has worsened famine conditions there. Government rations are down to 600 grams a day for much of the population; perhaps 150,000 or more are on the verge of starving. U.S. officials say North Korea's harvest this year will fall some 2 million tons short of what's needed to provide minimum sustenance. Apart from China, which fears a collapse in the north, little aid is forthcoming.

The food shortage is symptomatic of a deeper problem. Two years after the nuclear accord, all signs point to an eventual implosion in North Korea. Conversations with North Korean officials suggest that Pyongyang knows its system is broken. But it is unwilling to follow the reformist model of China and Vietnam, fearing that such a move would weaken its tight political grip and bring about its demise.

Pyongyang appears to be responding to its predicament by slowly escalating tensions in the hope that the Clinton administration will enter into new negotiations. Given the enormous desperation of North Korea, it is possible that U.S. and South Korean diplomacy might find enough inducements to prevent the nuclear accord from derailing. But we have seen this movie before.

The bottom line is that unless the nuclear accord is part of a larger design to reduce military confrontation on the peninsula and begin political reconciliation between North and South Korea, it will not be sustainable. In the aftermath of the submarine incident, an already skeptical Republican Congress and a South Korean polity entering a presidential election year are reluctant to do any favors for North Korea.

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