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North Korea's gamble with the United States pays off
Posted: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Power and Interest News Report (PINR)


Carefully playing its cards, North Korea may have successfully brought the United States to the negotiating table. Angry over being labeled as part of the "axis of evil," along with the failure of the U.S. to live up to its energy commitments agreed to in 1994, Pyongyang took advantage of the looming war in Iraq to complicate U.S. strategic goals and to thrust North Korea's political and economic concerns on to the global stage.

In 1994, in what is known as the Agreed Framework, the United States offered to lower trade and economic barriers along with guaranteeing that two 1,000 megawatt light water reactors (LWR) would be built in North Korea by 2003. In exchange for the promise of the reactors, the D.P.R.K. ended construction of its plutonium graphite-moderated nuclear reactors. Like enriched uranium, plutonium waste can be used to make nuclear weapons (it is much more difficult to convert LWR waste into weapons-grade material).

But contrary to the agreement, construction of the LWRs remained far behind schedule. In fact, before the current crisis, the first LWR was not expected to reach completion until at least 2008, even though the 1994 agreement specified that both reactors would be built by 2003. While North Korea's test fire of a Taepo-Dong-1 missile in 1998 delayed construction of the reactors, it did not violate the agreement; Secretary of State Colin Powell stated in February of 2002 that North Korea has so far "stay[ed] within the agreement."

These delays have long upset North Korea, who worries that Washington may be using it as a threat in order to construct a missile defense shield. These worries turned to fear when the incoming Bush administration labeled North Korea as being part of the "axis of evil." In addition to the label, the Bush administration warned in its National Security Strategy of the United States of America, released in September of 2002, that it would "act preemptively" against "rogue states" such as North Korea who the Bush administration accused of "developing its own WMD arsenal."

Incidentally, after angering Pyongyang, the Bush administration -- with its antagonistic rhetoric directed towards the North -- helped to enflame anti-American attitudes in South Korea, where much of the populace showed their distaste for Washington's threats by voting Roh Moo-hyun in as president, a candidate known for his tepid views of the United States. In fact, a recent poll by the Pew Research Center provides more evidence for this trend: only 24 percent of South Koreans support President Bush's "war on terrorism." Out of all the Asian countries polled, South Korea had the largest number of people, standing at 73 percent, who do not believe that the United States considers the interests of other countries when engaging in foreign policy. Also, considering that North Korea's military is in position to level Seoul in case of any serious military conflict, the South has tried to choose diplomacy over confrontation, setting it apart from its strategic American ally.

This new political rift in South Korea has helped to tie the United States' hands when dealing with North Korea. Eager to keep the focus on Iraq, and unable to gain the support of its vital ally South Korea, the Bush administration was coaxed to lessen their negative rhetoric toward Pyongyang.

This was most dramatically seen in U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly's meeting with South Korean officials on January 13, 2003. Kelly, in response to a reporter's question at a news conference in Seoul, stated, "We know there are energy problems in North Korea. Once we get beyond the nuclear problems, there may be an opportunity with the United States, with private investors, or with other countries to help North Korea in the energy area." Kelly's statements mark a change in policy as previously, the Bush administration said they would not negotiate with North Korea, who they accused of blackmailing the United States.

Kelly's remarks should please Pyongyang, which now has the public assurance that if they shut down their recently started reactors, the United States will help North Korea with its energy needs. It also props up the image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who will look even more heroic to his people by standing up to the United States. But Pyongyang cannot expect to achieve much more from their unconventional negotiating methods.

China, arguably North Korea's largest aid donor, does not stand to gain from North Korea's tough attempts to bring the United States back to the negotiating table. Beijing, eager to join the world community and increase financial investment, does not want to become a fait accomplice in Pyongyang's orchestrated nuclear threats. This could ally both South Korea and Japan even more closely with the United States, isolating China.

More importantly, North Korea's tactics give justification for the Bush administration's plans to build a missile defense shield. While the Bush administration claims the missile defense shield will be used to counter the North Korean threat, Beijing fears that the United States is attempting to cage the growing Asian dragon. Along with establishing new military bases on China's western borders, the United States already has bases to the south and east of China, forming a half-circle around the country. With a successful missile defense shield, much of China's military in the Pacific would be rendered technologically useless.

Beijing's fear is fast becoming a reality, as Japan's military establishment seems to have gained more clout in Tokyo after Pyongyang's recent moves. The Koizumi government has already dispatched the controversial state-of-the-art Japanese Aegis destroyer to set sail to the Indian Ocean to assist the U.S.-led "war on terrorism." The U.S. is discussing the implementation of the Navy Theater Wide Defense (NTWD) system that could be installed on Aegis warships; these mobile missile defense systems could severely weaken China's military threat and reduce Beijing's political clout. Many of China's ballistic missiles could become ineffective by a NTWD system.

Even more worrisome to China is the emergence of a small group in Japan calling for the creation of nuclear weapons to protect the island nation. Despite Japan's strong anti-war stance, embedded into the constitution after World War II, the nuclear debate has finally entered the political arena. In April of 2002, Japan's Liberal Party president Ichiro Ozawa boasted that Japan could create "thousands of nuclear warheads" very quickly should it become necessary. A nuclear Japan would greatly minimize China's political and military power in all of Asia.

For these reasons, Beijing will be informing Pyongyang that they should accept the recent U.S. offer for negotiations. North Korea will most likely accept Kelly's overture. So far, Pyongyang has been careful to reassure the world that they have "no intentions of building nuclear weapons." But Pyongyang may become overly zealous and create a situation from which it will have difficulty backing down. Such a situation could redirect South Korean negative sentiment away from the United States and toward Pyongyang. That result will not be in the best interests of Kim Jong-il's North Korea.

Erich Marquardt drafted this report; Matthew Riemer contributed.

[The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an analysis-based publication that seeks to, as objectively as possible, provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. PINR seeks to inform rather than persuade. This report may be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast provided that any such reproduction identifies the original source, All comments should be directed to]

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