Without nuclear weapons North Korea would barely be noticed. It is a 10th the size of South Africa, with half the population and with the average worker earning less than in Lesotho. Widespread hunger and malnutrition persist despite the huge quantities of international food aid since 1995/96 and a good harvest last year.
In the southern half of the Korean peninsula people of the same culture and climate enjoy democracy and an economy nearly 50 times more productive, thanks to very different politics and policies.
Nuclear weapons and a military that consumes nearly one-third of the economy provide the North Korean government with its only real defence against mounting international pressures for economic reform and political openness.
In a 1994 deal brokered by former United States president Jimmy Carter, North Korea agreed to allow United Nations inspectors to ensure its nuclear facility at Yongbyong would cease developing the capacity to process weapons-grade plutonium in return for shipments of food, oil, and assistance in building light water nuclear power stations.
South Korea undertook to promote gradual internal reform by embarking on a series of political, economic and cultural confidence-building measures and by last year one of the world’s most isolated and centrally planned economy was starting to reform.
But when the US announced in October that North Korea had been cheating on the 1994 deal and secretly developing the capacity to produce enriched uranium for weapons, Pyongyang merely called for new negotiations. The US would agree only after a halt to all covert nuclear programmes. North Korea demurred and reopened the Yongbyong plutonium facility, expelling UN inspectors.
Soon North Korea could credibly threaten South Korea and Japan with a half a dozen nuclear weapons. Were the US to pre-emptively bomb the Yongbyong facility, the North could retaliate immediately by shelling the South’s capital Seoul.
US policy toward North Korea seeks the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, with or without the support of the regime, just as in Iraq. In both cases the US is using multilateral coercive diplomacy, although it is currently downplaying the threat of US military force in North Korea. For now Washington is only pressing for economic sanctions and political isolation against Pyongyang. In both cases, the US wants and needs the backing of the UN Security Council.
Russian and Chinese support will be crucial. Both border North Korea and appear far more interested in reigning in Pyongyang than Baghdad, although it is unclear how much influence they have, or are prepared to use, to alter the policies of North Korea. Either could veto US sponsored UN resolutions on Iraq. Both have been improving their relations with the US, a major objective of the Bush administration, yet say they are against a US-led invasion of Iraq.
During 2003 the UN’s authority will be tested as never before. At issue will be whether two major regional crises over the control of weapons of mass destruction can be peacefully resolved, or at least contained. Will the terms of intervention be set through multilateral agreement, at least among the 15 members of the UN Security Council, or by the world’s most powerful state acting essentially on its own?
How these two crises are handled will set important new precedents, with regard to spread of weapons of mass destruction, but more generally in dealing with any regime that poses a threat to regional peace and security, including in Africa.
South Africa, and all countries that support the UN, should back US calls for greater sanctions against North Korea and urge Russia and China to persuade the government of Kim Jong II to halt the reactivation of the Yongbyong plutonium facility and the production of enriched uranium as preconditions for restarting negotiations for expanding economic cooperation with the US, Japan and other Western powers.
At the same time, South Africa should continue to oppose any US action against Iraq that is not sanctioned by the UN Security Council, in this case giving diplomatic support to the Russians and Chinese.
So far neither Saddam Hussein nor Kim Jong II appear willing to meet UN demands. Both are trying to split the Security Council.
South Africa, as chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, the African Union and the first country to voluntarily destroy its own nuclear weapons programme, should press the US, China and Russia to forge a grand bargain in support of UN-led efforts to disarm both North Korea and Iraq, thereby further restraining the US from undertaking unilateral military intervention.
Professor John Stremlau is head of international relations at Wits University