With all sides seeming to climb further up the escalatory ladder over the last several days, defusing the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula — let alone persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arsenal as it once promised to do — looks daunting.
Indeed, the latest moves by the major players – the two Koreas and the United States – evoked new appeals Tuesday by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for calm to be restored.
“The crisis has gone too far,” said the former South Korean foreign minister during a news conference in Andorra. “Things must begin to calm down; there is no need for the DPRK (North Korea) to be on a collision course with the international community. Nuclear threats are not a game.”
Ban was reacting specifically to recent threats by Pyongyang and specifically its announcement Tuesday that it was re-activating its nuclear complex at Yongbyon that U.S. intelligence officials believe had extracted enough plutonium to produce as many as eight nuclear bombs, at least two of which are likely to have been used in underground tests in 2006 and 2009.
The complex also includes a sophisticated uranium enrichment plant that could provide a second fuel source for building bombs. It was partially dismantled seven years ago in a denuclearisation-for-aid deal negotiated under the auspices of the long-stalled Six-Party Talks that included the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan, and Russia.
“This work will be put into practice without delay,” according to a statement released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which also stressed that the complex would be used for the generation of electricity as well as “for bolstering up the nuclear armed force both in quality and quantity till the world is denuclearised”.
For its part, the United States sent a second guided-missile destroyer to join the USS John McCain, whose systems are designed to shoot down ballistic missiles shortly after they are launched, which was ordered into the region’s waters Monday.
Those deployments came amidst ongoing annual joint U.S.-South Korean manoeuvres that have so far included, among other well-publicised features, fly-overs by B-52 bombers and mock bombing runs close to the North’s border by two B-2 Stealth bombers that flew directly from the U.S.
The exercises, code-named Foal Eagle, appear to have provoked the latest escalation in tensions that were already at near-record highs after the U.N. Security Council imposed new economic and diplomatic sanctions against Pyongyang last month.
The Council, which included China, the North’s closest ally and its main source of fuel and food assistance, voted unanimously to impose the sanctions in response to Pyongyang’s Feb. 12 underground nuclear test, its third since 2006.
Since the sanctions’ approval, which co-incided with the start of the “Foal Eagle” exercises, the regime headed by the 29-year-old Kim Jong-un, the grandson of the DPRK’s founder, has claimed that Washington and Seoul were planning a nuclear attack against the North.
Since then, it has, among other measures, launched its own manoeuvres, renounced the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, cut off “hot lines” between Pyongyang and Seoul, threatened a “pre-emptive nuclear strike” against South Korea, the U.S., and its bases in the Pacific, and, more recently, declared that it has entered a “state of war” with the South.
While the administration of President Barack Obama has stressed throughout the crisis that it has seen no specific preparations by North Korea to act on its threats, fears that hostilities could break out by accident with both the North and the South on high alert and the hot lines between them disconnected, have risen steadily.
“The concern is that there will be a stray shell from either side that could set in motion a chain of events that would be tragic,” said Alan Romberg, a former senior State Department Asia expert who currently heads East Asia programmes at the Stimson Center.
“This is not a purposeful march to war, but it could accidentally lead us into a very dangerous situation.”
In an interview with IPS, Romberg said Tuesday’s announcement by Pyongyang was not necessarily all bad news, although it appeared to make clearer than ever that Pyongyang is determined to be recognised as a nuclear-weapons state and will not consider denuclearisation until the other nuclear powers agree to disarm.
He pointed, in particular, to the adoption by the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly Monday of a new law on “consolidating the position of nuclear weapons state for self-defence” which laid out the legal framework for the country’s nuclear strategy.
Among other provisions, the new law states that the main purpose of the North’s nuclear weapons is for deterrence and that they can be used only to “repel invasion or attack from a hostile nuclear weapons state and make retaliatory strikes.” It also provides for cooperation with international non-proliferation and disarmament efforts.
“They’re doing two things at the same time – taking steps to show they’re persisting in their nuclear programme, but also that they’re doing this in some orderly legal fashion,” according to Romberg.
“There’s no hint of retreat from the nuclear programme, but perhaps a standing down to some extent of the rhetoric which has had people so nervous.”
The latest developments, he said, pose difficult problems for the Obama administration, which has repeatedly stressed its openness to dialogue with Pyongyang on a range of issues, including negotiating a permanent peace accord, but only if the North re-commits itself to de-nuclearisation.
“At this point, North Korea says it will not address that issue any further, and, in the meantime, they’re clearly moving in the opposite direction,” he noted in a reference to Tuesday’s order to resume operations at Yongbyon.
A growing number of analysts outside the administration are urging it to re-consider its refusal to fully engage Pyongyang and note that failure to do so risks driving a wedge between Washington and Seoul whose new president, Park Geun-hye, has not made a de-nuclearisation commitment a condition for North-South talks.
In one widely noted column published by the Washington Post this week, one expert, Mike Chinoy of the University of Southern California, urged Obama to send a high-level envoy to meet with Kim “to explore possibilities of reversing the recent downward spiral.”
“(O)nly face-to-face discussions with Kim Jong Un will enable the United States to judge whether there is any hope of dialogue and revived diplomacy,” he wrote. “The alternatives are so bleak – at a minimum continued tension; at worst, a new Korean conflict or a frightening wave of proliferation – that it is worth Obama taking the political risk to test Kim’s intentions.”
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.
This article was originally published at IPS News.