Pulling Asia Down: North Korea's Latest Nuclear Standoff Threatens to Derail Asia's Growth. Will the Region, and the Rest of the World, Be as Ready to Appease Pyongyang as It Was in 1994? (Cover Story)

By Ramsay, Randolph | Business Asia, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Pulling Asia Down: North Korea's Latest Nuclear Standoff Threatens to Derail Asia's Growth. Will the Region, and the Rest of the World, Be as Ready to Appease Pyongyang as It Was in 1994? (Cover Story)


Ramsay, Randolph, Business Asia


Unpredictable is a word often used by the media when describing North Korea. More specifically, the "unpredictable" tag is labelled at the Stalinist regime's enigmatic ruler, Kim Jong II.

"Everyone is working in the dark and you can provide for any scenario you want to construct," Jim Rolfe at the Asia Pacific Centre for Security said. "The infuriating thing is that North Korea is more or less unfathomable."

But the hermit state's latest round of brinkmanship, this time centered on threats to resume its nuclear program, has an all too familiar feel to it. While some of the details are different, the game North Korea is playing is the same--act bad, Pyongyang thinks, and the world will bend over backwards to appease you.

But with its poor track record and the current world mood against so called rogue states, North Korea may find no one is willing to play its game anymore. And that could mean bad news not only for Asia, but for the world.

New crisis

The last time North Korea staged a crisis on the peninsula was in 1994. Back then, it once again showed signs of wanting to increase its nuclear capability, even managing to fire a test missile that sailed over Japan. And what was the result of that brash series of behaviours? A US-North Korea pact under which Pyongyang pledged to stop its nuclear weapons program, in exchange for billions of dollars in aid.

Australian National University (ANU) convenor of Korean studies Professor Kenneth Wells says many have now seen the pattern behind North Korea's plans.

"I think in a limited sense they are unpredictable. They do take people by surprise, such as when they announced (last year) that they did have a nuclear program," he said.

"Apart from those things, the general pattern of their announcements, their demands, and their negotiating techniques are not very unpredictable. It does follow a pattern, and this pattern is one of upping the stakes, raising tensions, making some seemingly uncompromising statements, putting down ultimatums, and asking for quid pro quos, when one side of the quid pro quo is rather extreme."

More aid

What North Korea wants this time around is similar to what they wanted to achieve in 1994--survival of the regime headed by Kim Jong II and as much aid as they can get. Wells, who is also the Korea Foundation chair of Korean studies, says aid, in whatever form it can be given, is one of the key aims of Pyongyang. "They want to be able to get enough financial aid and not just in terms of money, but in terms of technology and assistance with all sorts of infrastructure--they want to get enough of that to tide them over," he said.

"They want any country to give them as much hard cash and as much technological assistance and hardware as possible. They also want America to withdraw any sanctions, they want to be given a favourable trading relationship, and they want North Korea to be removed from any list that could disadvantage it."

Regime survival

Topping North Korea's list of concerns, even surpassing that of receiving more aid, is that of Kim Jong II and his circle retaining power in Pyongyang.

Kim's fears were inflamed last year when US President George Bush labelled North Korea one of his three Axis of Evil countries, along with Iraq and Iran. Wells says Kim is increasingly worried that the US will eventually take a stance on North Korea similar to the one Washington has taken on Iraq.

"Under the present circumstances, North Korea really is worried that once the US thinks it's finished with Iraq, it is next on the list," he said. "And it's not really unreasonable for them to think that, after they were put with Iraq in the Axis of Evil of group. It's not unreasonable for them to expect the US would have similar policies with countries that it has categorised in exactly the same way."

Other analysts have said that North Korea is seeking assurances from the US that it would not be its next target. …

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