It's poker time again

The Straits Times

29 April 2003

TRUE to form, North Korea turned the first round of nuclear talks with the United States in Beijing last week into poker dealing. Its chief delegate, Mr Li Gun, practically set the agenda for future rounds by saying North Korea already had nuclear warheads, and was also reprocessing spent fuel rods to extract material for more bombs. He reportedly said his country could carry out a test explosion or sell nuclear devices to willing buyers. America's actions would determine which course it would take. This has placed the US in a position it is not accustomed to: that of responding to an ultimatum. A 'bold proposal' Pyongyang was said to have made in the light of these disclosures was for security guarantees in the form of a 'promise of non-aggression', not so much a treaty, according to South Korean sources close to the talks. But the consensus among students of Pyongyang moves has long been that it seeks three things from the US: a non-aggression pact, diplomatic recognition and economic aid. Variations in negotiating positions can arise to suit differing circumstances, but the basic premise is unchanged. That is, North Korea is suing for peace while holding the nuclear card close to its chest.

Is it bluffing? It is over this poser that Pyongyang can have its adversaries confused. The US is unsure, despite its satellite surveillance capability and what ground intelligence it has been able to deploy, either of its own or through proxies. It appears prepared to do a deal if North Korea has not got the bomb, but will undertake to dismantle its capability to build one. If indeed Pyongyang has gone nuclear, America's negotiating position will not be as accommodating. It can be taken that this is what its delegate at the Beijing round, Mr James Kelly, will recommend to his masters.

South Korea is in a worse state. Its official line has been that it does not think the North has the bomb. In private, the opposite position surely has to hold. It will strain belief if its national security planning is not premised on the assumption that the North has nuclear devices. The fact that then president Park Chung Hee started a secret nuclear development programme in the mid-1970s as a deterrent against Northern aggression (until stopped by the US) shows its innate insecurity. But for the sake of drawing North Korea into its fold of peaceable neighbours, later governments have gone no further than to remind Pyongyang that the 1992 Joint Declaration on Denuclearisation commits both countries to not possessing nuclear arms. But what Mr Li Gun has said cannot be comforting to a country which has 14 civilian nuclear reactors (producing 40 per cent of the nation's electricity needs), each vulnerable to attack. The contamination would be unimaginable. This is in addition to Seoul being in the line of easy fire.

The head of the South Korean intelligence service, Mr Shin Kuhn, reported to parliament last year that the North had been able to extract enough plutonium to build up to three 'primitive' bombs by 1994. All of which argues strongly for the allies to take a definitive negotiating position based on the belief that North Korea has a crude bomb or two. Seoul should then have no compunction in ending ministerial talks (another round is now taking place in Pyongyang) if the North would only talk about economic aid and nothing else. China can weigh in by reducing greatly its grain and energy supplies to Pyongyang. Any moves that would help crystallise America's evolving options for a diplomatic settlement will be helpful.