North Korea Crosses the Rubicon

by Peter Hayes

June 3 (Tokyo)–The DPRK has deconstituted the physical evidence
from the reactor core that would have allowed the IAEA to
determine at a later date whether the DPRK had removed (and by
implication, reprocessed) more fuel rods than it had declared.
this action is irreversible, as much for political as for
technical reasons. The DPRK crossed the Rubicon in full
knowledge that there is no return from Hades.

Having broken irrevocably with the rules of the NPT, the DPRK has
left the international community with no alternative but treat it
as a nuclear-capable, pariah state. As such, it will be treated
as the exception to the NPT that proves its rule. The DPRK will
now be punished rather than rewarded until it either complies in
full, or is crushed eventually by economic or military pressure.

Some believe that China may still pull a rabbit out of a hat. Or
that Russia’s proposal to hold a multilateral conference to
resolve the issue may hold the key to opening the door and
persuading the DPRK to walk back into the international

In reality, just the opposite is the case. The DPRK’s actions
manifest the fact that neither China nor Russia were able to
persuade or compel it to conform to international non-
proliferation norms.

The North Korean leadership chose defiance and confrontation
rather than compliance and cooperation. Maybe they were blinded
and lost in their own blizzard of tactics at the brink, and fell
over. Maybe they expect to get more security or carrots by
negotiating from a position of greater strength–including
nuclear arms–than they anticipated obtaining by devaluing their
nuclear leverage at this time by striking a package deal. Maybe
they overestimated the political will and stamina of the Clinton
Administration to absorb North Korea’s body blows on the IAEA,
and to continue the dialogue rather than move to sanctions.
Maybe internal battles between pragmatists and ultraconservatives
led its leaders to accelerate the refueling of the reactor core
in spite of the IAEA and UN Security Council’s demands.

In short, the precise combination of factors that led them to
overplay their hand is unknowable and irrelevant at this stage.
Having fallen or flung themselves over the proliferation
precipice, no one is now going to throw them a lifeline and haul
them back up.

Henceforth, the nuclear issue will be much more dangerous for
North Kora and everyone else. Until recently, the policy
pendulum in Washington swung between diplomatic dialogue with the
DPRK versus multilateral sanctions.

Now, the range of options has switched and narrowed to
multilateral sanctions versus unilateral military containment of
the North Korean nuclear threat. The possibility lurks in the
background of a full-scale war escalating from an unlikely but
conceivable U.S. decision to cap the DPRK’s nuclear weapons
program at 8-10 nuclear weapons by destroying its nuclear
facilities and thereby halting the expanded production of fissile

Ironically, so long as the DPRK did not cross the rubicon, U.S.
policy circles were undecided about what to do about the DPRK.
The very nature of American democracy–its multiple branches of
government and the free play of contending policy currents–
fragmented the American response to the DPRK’s negotiating

While it appeared still possible that the DPRK could be walked
back from the nuclear brink, Americans were divided among
themselves as to what to do. With no consensus on what to do
emerging from within the executive branch, Clinton remained
largely uncommitted and aloof from the public debate that slowly
shifted to the right. The DPRK was able to play on this weakness
of American democratic decision making and to string out the
process, all the while trying to provoke an American response to
its proposal for a package deal.

Once unified, however, American democracy has enormous resilience
and strength. Only months of strategic indecision and a series of
tactical blunders by the DPRK, compounded by its latest
fundamental error, could have forged the emerging bipartisan
unity that now exists and confronts the DPRK on the nuclear
issue. This achievement is remarkable, even for North Korea. It
provides the domestic basis for building a strong international
coalition to confront North Korea.

Nonetheless, the United States will have a hard time imposing
sanctions quickly on the DPRK. In particular, China will drag
its feet, having obtained already MFN status. China does not want
a confrontation that would strengthen the US position in East
Asia. If pushed, China may abstain from a sanctions vote,
squeeze the DPRK economically to implement sanctions de facto,
but not strangle the DPRK’s jugular vein for oil imports from

For its part, Russia will extract a price for signing onto
sanctions, namely, that it be given a greater regional role in
promoting multilateral diplomacy on security issues.

Japan will urge further discussions with the DPRK before imposing
sanctions. But Japan is ready to stop the flow of hard currency
from the pro-DPRK Korean community in Japan. Indeed, many pro-
North Korean businessmen in Japan would be delighted at being
relieved of this obligation.

Moreover, Kim Il Sung’s ability to activate his “Korean card” in
Japan is limited by the Korean communities desire to avoid
friction with the hegemonic Japanese society in which it has
found a social and economic niche. This community fears
increasing anti- Korean social pressure due to escalating
tensions between Japan and the DPRK. Any attempt to use this
community to pressure the Japanese government would only increase
this pressure. The result if North Korea tried this tactic would
be ever tighter controls on remittances to the DPRK and a
strengthening of Japanese sanctions.

Being on the line, South Korea is in perhaps the most difficult
position as tensions increase. After a year of stop-start,
unproductive negotiations between the United States and the DPRK
the ROK has not engaged the DPRK on its own and has little
leverage over the bilateral or multilateral fora in which basic
policy toward the DPRK will be conducted henceforth.

If sanctions are imposed quickly, then the ROK will support them
strongly. But if the debate drags on and no international
unanimity emerges, then the ROK’s leaders will be forced to judge
whether they can afford to let the situation in the North
deteriorate to the point where the regime may collapse or lash
out against the South. This turning point will be reached in the
early northern hemispheric autumn.

The pressure in Pyongyang on the leadership is now tremendous.
It is impossible to predict where faultlines might appear and
which ones might slip as stress builds up. Pragmatic reforms in
relation to North Korea’s external economic relations are now
indefinitely on hold due to the international tensions. the same
is probably true domestically in spite of the desperate economic
situation. The collapse of the internal distribution system
reportedly is forcing some labor units to make direct deals with
food producing units in the provinces. But there are limits on
how far such practical agreements can go before Pyongyang’s
authority is eroded unacceptably.

Undoubtedly, the confrontation will cause some senior North
Koreans to lose confidence in the wisdom and judgment of the
Great and Dear Leaders. Committing political suicide in full
view of the international community is a poor way to build a
secure and prosperous future. This cannot have escaped the
notice of many influential North Koreans.