The North Korea nuclear standoff
remains far from over one year after it erupted. Tensions continue to mount over
North Korea's determination to strengthen what it calls its nuclear deterrent
and its recent claims it is making more nuclear bombs out of spent nuclear fuel
it has reprocessed.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly went to Pyongyang last October
to hold the first high-level talks between the United States and North Korea
since President Bush took office.
Tensions between the two nations were already high. President Bush had stopped
the previous administration's ongoing talks with Pyongyang, but had never offered
up an alternative policy. When President Bush famously stated his case for
the war on terror, he described North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, as constituting
an "axis of evil."
A war of words followed, with the U.S. president describing North Korean
leader Kim Jong Il as "a pygmy" and accusing him of "starving his own people." The
North Korean media responded with equally unflattering descriptions of the
But diplomatic sources say a peace initiative was on Mr. Kelly's agenda in
October of last year, which would have involved the lifting of sanctions in
exchange for an agreement from Pyongyang to freeze all programs related to
weapons of mass destruction and to reduce the deployment of its vast conventional
But the Bush Administration had acquired evidence that North Korea was trying
to produce highly-enriched uranium for use in nuclear weapons. Mr. Kelly told
reporters in Seoul last October that this development was unacceptable. "I
told the North that they must immediately and visibly dismantle this covert
nuclear weapons program."
Mr. Kelly said after initial denials, the North Korean flatly acknowledged
that they had such a program. North Korea later said it had never made the
statement. But Washington did not buy it, and accused the North of violating
a 1994 pact between Washington and North Korea called the Agreed Framework,
in which Pyongyang agreed to freeze and dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
Scott Snyder, a Seoul-based representative for the Asia Foundation, says
relations between the United States and the isolated Stalinist state have darkened. "What
we have seen is a gradual process of crisis escalation on the part of the North
Koreans following the revelation in October," he says. "Essentially that marked
the beginning of the unraveling of the Agreed Framework."
The United States quickly stopped heavy-fuel shipments to the North - part
of its commitment under the Agreed Framework. Pyongyang responded by expelling
U.N. nuclear inspectors and withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
It also said it was restarting Yongbyon, its main nuclear facility located
north of the capital. North Korea says it has reprocessed eight thousand spent
fuel rods from its previously frozen reactors and is making nuclear bombs with
the extracted plutonium.
Experts say if the claim is true, the North would have sufficient plutonium
to make about six nuclear bombs within months. U.S. intelligence has long believed
the North had already developed one or two. But Pyongyang says its is making
more to strengthen its "nuclear deterrent" in the face of what it calls an
ongoing threat of invasion from the United States. Washington has repeatedly
denied that it has any such plans.
Ken Wells heads the Korean Studies Center at Australia National University
in Canberra. He partially attributes North Korea's belligerence to its poverty.
He says the stream of provocative actions and angry rhetoric encourage North
Korean people to target their anger for the country's woes toward the United
States instead of at the Kim Jong Il government.
"North Korea does not have really many bargaining chips in its hand so it
has to rely on what it thinks is its strongest bargaining position," says Mr.
Wells. "And that is simply that it will insist on its right to be able defend
itself against any attempt to overthrow the nation or change the regime. And
that it will therefore continue its nuclear armament program to do so."
Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation says North Korea's behavior over the
last year is also a way of drawing the world's attention and strengthening
the North's negotiating position even though it has what he calls "a diplomatically
weak hand." "What they have wanted for a long time is a changed relationship
with the world and the United States," he says. "The problem is they want it
on their terms and without much of a reciprocal engagement but without much
willingness to adjust or change their own political system."
China and Russia - the North's only two major allies - along with the United
States, Japan and North and South Korea, held an initial round of multi-party
talks in Beijing in late August, but it ended only with a vague agreement to
hold more negotiations.
In the meantime, the government of Kim Jong Il is still seeking to shape
the agenda, repeating its demand for a non-aggression pact with Washington
as the only way to resolve the crisis. The United States continues to refuse
and, last month, shored up its defense capabilities in the region with the
deployment of new Patriot missiles. Pyongyang called the $11 billion upgrade "a
provocative action by the United States to complete it preparations for war."