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The Unthinkable May Turn Into Reality

September 13, 1998|Robert A. Manning | Robert A. Manning, a former State Department advisor for policy, is a senior fellow and director of Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

WASHINGTON — It is March 15, 1999. Tensions have been mounting for months following the disclosure of secret North Korean nuclear facilities and the testing of a two-stage missile over Japan. U.S.-North Korean talks have stalled. Food aid from the United States, Japan and South Korea has been halted; reports of tens of thousands facing famine filter out. After weeks of escalating rhetoric, North Korea unleashes a round of artillery and Scud-missile fire into the outskirts of Seoul and pours two divisions of infantry through tunnels under the DMZ. As U.S. forces begin to mobilize on barely 18-hours' notice, Pyongyang issues an ultimatum: We have nuclear missiles targeting Tokyo and U.S. bases in Okinawa ready to launch. We seek to discuss the terms of unification with Seoul. If the U.S. or Japan intervenes in this internal Korean matter, we will level Tokyo.

The above may sound more like a Tom Clancy political thriller than a realistic vision of what the future may hold. But a cascade of recent events, from missile tests to hints of secret nuclear facilities, suggest that a 1994 accord purportedly "solving" the Korean nuclear problem has neither ended the nuclear threat nor reduced tensions. Instead, what remains perhaps the world's most dangerous flash point may be drifting toward nightmare scenarios that diplomacy is incapable of stopping.

Administration efforts last week to deal with the threat--giving Pyongyang 300,000 tons of food for keeping its known nuclear program frozen, the hope of inspecting secret sites and more talks on other issues--suggest a wire-and-chewing-gum fix. Truth be told, current policy may have run its course. If so, the U.S. may be headed for a rerun of the confrontation that led to the brink of war in June 1994--only worse.

Pyongyang's recent behavior raises a chilling question: Is the hope of "engaging" Pyongyang in order to bring the isolated, totalitarian regime into the global community based on flawed assumptions that make a conflict unavoidable? No less disconcerting is a White House consumed with the president's political survival.

A harsh judgment? Well, ponder recent developments. For starters, there were those remarkable CNN images of adulatory masses and goose-stepping soldiers during Pyongyang's lavish celebrations of the 50th anniversary of North Korea last week. All this to inaugurate Kim Jong Il as head of state--in a nation where a visiting U.S. congressional delegation estimated that 300,000 to 800,000 are starving to death annually.

More dismaying was the overture to the celebrations. Two weeks ago, North Korea successfully launched a two-stage intermediate-range missile, the Taepodong 1, that flew over parts of Japan. Pyongyang claims it was a satellite launch, which U.S. officials now say is possible. Nonetheless, the only difference between a missile launch and a satellite launch is the payload. This follows disclosures two months ago that North Korea successfully developed a 700-mile-range Rodong missile and sold the technology to Pakistan and Iran. An impressive display of technology for a failed state that administration officials privately bet is on the verge of imploding.

But most disturbing of all were "leaks" that U.S. intelligence satellites have detected 15,000 North Korean workers building what are thought to be new nuclear facilities 25 miles from the known nuclear complex at Yongbyon. Some senior U.S. officials believe this intelligence shows that, in effect, North Korea only sold us part of its nuclear-weapons program. Recent U.S.-North Korea talks were unable to resolve the issue of new and suspicious sites, but there was agreement to negotiate the matter further. U.S. officials say the nature of the sites must be clarified if the nuclear deal is to stick. If it is revealed that North Korea has continued a secret effort to develop nuclear weapons even as it claimed to have frozen its known facilities, all bets are off. Remember, there are 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea facing 1 million North Korean troops, 11,000 artillery tubes and ballistic missiles on the other side of the demilitarized zone.

Finally, there is Pyongyang's failure to respond seriously to a genuinely conciliatory "sunshine" policy launched earlier by South Korea's new president, Kim Dae Jung. Though Kim pressed the U.S. to ease sanctions against the North, encouraged South Korean businesses to invest in the North and allowed unprecedented religious, cultural and tourist exchange, Pyongyang has, so far, refused calls for high-level talks on national reconciliation.

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