The Real Crisis: North Korea's Nuclear Gambit. (End Paper)

By Miller, Steven E. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Real Crisis: North Korea's Nuclear Gambit. (End Paper)


Miller, Steven E., Harvard International Review


While the world's attention was fixated on Iraq, a more urgent crisis was brewing in Northeast Asia. In the midst of the protracted confrontation and war with Iraq, the deeply isolated, erratic, and unpredictable government of North Korea openly resurrected its ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, and since then has taken serious strides toward the achievement of that objective. Iraq's nuclear weapons program was largely, if not entirely, destroyed by the United Nations as a consequence of UN inspection efforts during the 1990s, and there is presently no evidence that the regime of Saddam Hussein possessed the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons in the immediate future. In contrast, Pyongyang currently possesses the nuclear infrastructure and materials to produce some nuclear weapons in a matter of months, if not weeks. If North Korea succeeds in doing so, one of the world's most troubling and frightening regimes will have joined the nuclear club. If this happens. US security will be jeopardized, Northe ast Asia will be less stable, and the world will be a more dangerous place. Because the timeline to nuclear acquisition is so short and the consequences of a nuclear-armed North Korea are so adverse, this is the crisis that should have been at the top of the international agenda in the first months of 2003.

This is not the first time that Pyongyang has provoked a nuclear crisis. Indeed, North Korea has been playing nuclear games for more than a decade. In 1985, the country acceded to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and hence voluntarily assumed an international legal obligation to forsake nuclear weapons. For a number of years thereafter, however, it failed to reach a safeguards agreement to allow its civilian nuclear facilities to be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),as required under the NPT regime. Almost from the beginning of its membership in this regime, therefore, North Korea was in breach of its international obligations. When Pyongyang finally signed a safeguards agreement with the IAEA in 1992 and inspections of its facilities began, evidence soon emerged indicating that Pyongyang was engaged in illicit nuclear activities consistent with the pursuit of nuclear weapons. It appeared that North Korea was separating from its spent reactor fuel the plutonium necessary to build nuclear weapons.

What ensued was a dangerous nuclear crisis far more serious than the public realized at the time. In 1993, the IAEA formally deemed North Korea to be in a state of noncompliance, a status it retains to the present day. Pyongyang was pressured to allay international concerns, but it refused to allow access to data and facilities that would reveal the extent of its illicit activities and restore it to full compliance with the NPT. Instead, in March 1993, North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT, a decision it later reversed.

Pyongyang's dogged refusal to cooperate or comply with its NPT obligations collided with US President Bill Clinton's stern resolve to deny North Korea the ability to acquire nuclear weapons. This collision produced a mounting crisis during 1993 and 1994 that brought the two countries to the edge of war. According to knowledgeable accounts, the Clinton administration was prepared to use force to destroy North Korea's nuclear facilities even at the risk of a war on the Korean peninsula. Certainly, explicit coercive threats were directed at Pyongyang, and North Korea's leadership responded with its own threats of war.

Out of this high tension and drama came a diplomatic resolution of the crisis, negotiated over the summer of 1994 and resulting in the signing of a document called the Agreed Framework on October 21, 1994. In this deal, North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear reactors, freeze its nuclear activities, and put its nuclear assets under IAEA inspection. In return, North Korea received a pledge that a consortium of outside powers would build it two modern nuclear reactors and provide it with large shipments of oil. …

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The Real Crisis: North Korea's Nuclear Gambit. (End Paper)
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