ALLIED RESPONSE: Japanese Minister of Defense Yasukazu Hamada (left), U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (center) and South Korean Minister of National Defense Lee Sang Hee (right) meet in Singapore on May 30, vowing to strengthen trilateral cooperation to address the North Korean nuclear issue (XINHUA/AFP)
North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test on May 25, sparking a strong reaction from the international community. This was in sharp contrast to less than a year ago when the world cheered at the country's blast of its Yongbyon nuclear facility. Things have taken a dramatic turn since then. North Korea cut its links with South Korea, declaring its intention to enter into an all-round confrontation with its southern neighbor. It then launched a satellite, announced its withdrawal from the six-party talks, carried out a nuclear test and disavowed the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War. The flurry of events has completely reversed the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
A desperate Pyongyang
North Korea's latest nuclear test is outwardly similar to the one in 2006, when it also test-fired missiles before conducting the nuclear test. There are, however, two obvious differences. This year, North Korea did not raise clear demands on its opponents, leaving them at a loss even if they wanted to negotiate a solution. It abided by international rules when it launched the satellite. Given the international community's excessive reaction to the launch, North Korea turned desperate when it conducted the nuclear test.
At the beginning of the six-party talks, many people thought that the talks could hardly succeed because North Korea's very aim was to acquire nuclear weapons. Its recent nuclear test provides new evidence for these people. However, they cannot explain why North Korea signed a series of documents demanding that it abandon its nuclear programs at the six-party talks. No matter how we look at the country, it should be acknowledged that the six-party talks, at the very least, have succeeded in persuading North Korea to agree to abandon its nuclear programs on paper. The demolition of the Yongbyon cooling tower ahead of schedule demonstrated North Korea's sincerity in implementing the agreements reached at the talks. So what prompted it to take a U-turn in its attitude?
A review of the six-party talks last year shows that America's hesitance to honor its commitments dampened North Korea's confidence in the Bush administration in the first place. Under the pretext of North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens during the Cold War, Japan also refused to offer economic compensation to North Korea according to the agreements of the six-party talks. South Korean President Lee Myung Bak's adjustment of his predecessor Roh Moo Hyun's policy toward North Korea heightened Pyongyang's doubts and concerns as well. Despite all this, North Korea continued to fulfill its denuclearization commitments based on a common understanding with the United States. The Bush administration, however, was reluctant to remove North Korea from its list of "state sponsors of terrorism" under pressure from Japan and some political forces at home. It said North Korea's nuclear declaration must be verified before it could delete the country from the list.
While the United States delayed honoring its promise, several incidents tilted the balance. South Korea played up the incident in which a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean tourist who wandered into a military area near the Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea. South Korea not only politicized this accident but also took it to the multilateral ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Regional Forum. At the same time, it turned a deaf ear to Pyongyang's calls to put into practice the achievements of the summit between North Korea and South Korea. In addition, some anti-North Korean forces were obsessed with rumors about the health of the North Korean leader, still displaying an interest in seeking regime change in North Korea. Because of these disturbances, North Korea's trust in the outside world, which had just been established through the six-party talks, gradually ebbed away. The United States finally took North Korea off the list of "state sponsors of terrorism" in October last year. The move seemed too late as the Bush administration had only a few months to go and as the relations between Pyongyang and Seoul had begun to deteriorate.
In order to address its security problem through political means, North Korea needs not only to improve its relations with the United States but also to achieve reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula. Roh's role as a "balancer" on the peninsula and his policy of reconciliation contributed greatly to North Korea's acceptance of the denuclearization agreements at the six-party talks. Lee's policy adjustment, which heightened mutual distrust between North Korea and South Korea, posed barriers to negotiations on a peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula, something that is essential to the peninsula's denuclearization. Although it stands for resolving the North Korean nuclear issue through dialogue, the Obama administration, haunted by an economic crisis and troubles in the Middle East, cannot afford to devote too much attention to North Korea. It also tends to be indecisive under the influence of the hard-line policy of Japan and South Korea. All this has prompted North Korea to adjust its strategy from seeking a political solution to building up its military power.
Underlying the North Korean nuclear issue is the ongoing wrangling in Northeast Asia. At the beginning, the crux of the issue lay in the conflict between North Korea and the United States. It seemed that as long as this conflict was resolved, other problems would be easily settled. But the United States advocated a multilateral approach, trying to bring Japan and South Korea to the negotiating table. This was meant to meet the demands of these two allies, which also had stakes in the North Korean nuclear issue, strengthen their alliance and mount more pressure on North Korea.