N. Korea Nuclear Standoff Produces Differing Approaches In The Region

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Pressure is building on North Korea to dismantle a program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, with Australia adding its voice to warnings that the Stalinist state should not expect rewards for violating international agreements.

But a crack may have appeared in the consensus: South Korea's leader has argued against any punitive steps, saying they would only exacerbate the crisis.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in Washington that if North Korea wanted international help to develop its shattered economy, it would have to return to a 1994 agreement to end its attempts to develop nuclear weapons.

North Korea would receive no reward for "bad behavior," he said.

Downer was speaking after annual U.S.-Australian security talks in Washington with Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The State Department announced on Oct. 16 that the North Koreans confirmed during a visit by senior U.S. diplomats that it has pursued a uranium-enriching program.

The Bush administration has not ruled out economic sanctions against Pyongyang, and senior officials have said they are calling on governments to exert the "maximum amount of diplomatic pressure" on the North.

Australia established diplomatic relations with North Korea in 2000, although it has yet to open an embassy in Pyongyang.

It has also provided technical aid and considerable humanitarian assistance to the impoverished country - through U.N. agencies - including tens of thousands of tons of wheat.

Downer said it was clear Pyongyang wanted to attract foreign investment and develop trade, but added that it "won't extract more out of us in order to address this problem of uranium enrichment."

Speaking alongside Rumsfeld and Downer, Powell also stressed that there would be no reward offered for North Korea's compliance with the 1994 "Agreed Framework."

Under the accord, the U.S., Japan and South Korea promised the North Koreans two light-water nuclear reactors in return for abandoning its weapons program. The U.S. also undertook to supply 500,000 tons of fuel annually until the reactors were on line.

"Their cooperation was purchased once before," Powell noted, adding that the North Koreans would have to abandon the program "before they can expect the rest of the world to assist them in their difficulties."

Dr. Andrew Newman, an expert on weapons of mass destruction issues at Australia's Monash University said Wednesday Australia would not have much influence with North Korea, which had made it clear it was only really interested in dealing with the U.S.

Nonetheless, it was appropriate for Australia to make its views known, as the situation was of great concern for the region.

"It makes the region much hotter," he said of the North Korean admission. "If there is no agreement reached, it could set off some sort of regional arms race."

Although Pyongyang was clearly trying to wring concessions out of the U.S., Newman said, it was difficult to know exactly what it wanted.

He thought it possible the North Koreans had decided to acknowledge the program - when confronted with evidence by American officials - because they felt it was a good time to turn up the heat on a U.S. administration already occupied with the issues of terrorism and Iraq.

Sanctions - yes or no?

The U.S. has been ratcheting up the pressure on Pyongyang, securing the backing last weekend of the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group for calls on North Korea to end its illicit activities.

Japan and South Korea, the other key partners in the 1994 deal, appear to be differing over what line to take with a recalcitrant North Korea, however.

Japan, in keeping with the U.S. approach, said it would make North Korean compliance a pre-condition to normalizing diplomatic relations - important to Pyongyang because of the financial benefits that would bring.

Japanese representatives, in talks with their North Korean counterparts in Malaysia Tuesday and Wednesday, reiterated the demand, but a Japanese foreign ministry official said the North Koreans dismissed it as "totally unacceptable".

South Korea, by contrast, appears more concerned about what steps the U.S. may take next.

President Kim Dae-jung, now in the final months of his tenure, has pursued a ground-breaking policy of reconciliation with the North.

At weekend talks with President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Mexico, Kim jointly agreed that the existence of the uranium-enrichment program violated agreements and demanded that it be dismantled in a "prompt and verifiable manner."

Two days later, however, the South Korean leader voiced opposition to any steps the U.S. might take to punish Pyongyang for its program.

Addressing a gathering of Koreans during a stopover in Seattle on his way home, Kim said punitive measures would be dangerous, South Korean media reported Wednesday.

"Economic sanctions, if imposed, will lead the North to be eager to develop nuclear bombs, creating a nuclear-war crisis," he said.

Kim also called on the U.S. not to pull out of the project to build light-water reactors for North Korea, nor to stop supplying it with fuel.

In a report on the North Korean nuclear issue, updated after the recent developments, the Congressional Research Service suggests that the administration consider "coercive measures" in Pyongyang refused to comply with its obligations.

"Past consideration of coercive measures have included economic and military sanctions," said the report by researcher Larry Niksch.

The U.S. has insisted that a halt to the nuclear program should precede any dialogue with North Korea.

But Pyongyang says it expects Washington first to change what it calls a "hostile stance," arguing that demands for it to disarm are unacceptable.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow