The confrontation on the Korean peninsula gives every appearance of reaching critical mass. The war clouds wafting from North Korea carry the danger of a violent episode if not of a second Korean War. Clearly North Korea -- or rather Kim Jong Il and the ruling elite -- is writhing under condemnation by the U.N. Security Council and the world over its nuclear tests and missile launches.
The question now is what the United States and others can do besides talk of “consequences,” as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has warned, and of “saber-rattling,” as the White House said dismissively.
The standoff lends itself to choices that are potentially dangerous, unreliable -- and possibly disastrous. One of these is the much-discussed Proliferation Security Initiative, or PSI, which empowers participants to try to blockade or at least monitor shipments of missiles and biological, chemical or nuclear materiel to and from other rogue states as well as terrorist organizations. The group has 16 “core” countries, while the remaining 80-plus nations have basically observer status.
In the wake of North Korea’s underground nuclear test this week, South Korea joined PSI as a core member. North Korea responded at once with a warning of military reprisals if anyone attempted to stop or board one of its vessels.
PSI is the brainchild of John Bolton in 2003, when he was undersecretary of State for arms control during the presidency of George W. Bush, and other members of the old neocon crowd. The fact that President Obama appears to be as enthusiastic about PSI as Bush was highlights the irony of the similarities in the policies of the two presidents when it comes to the puzzle of North Korea.
For South Korea, the main benefit of joining PSI may be to get along with its American ally. The U.S. has only 28,500 troops in South Korea, including Air Force units, and is moving the last infantry and armored units north of Seoul to well south of the capital. American commanders seem convinced that South Korean forces could hold off the North Koreans on their own with U.S. air and naval support and modern weaponry.
Despite Pyongyang’s rhetoric over PSI, the initiative may be of only symbolic value in terms of the defense of the Korean peninsula. Although PSI could form the basis of a de facto alliance, the participants so far have engaged mainly in exercises and exchanges of information. And Seoul has said it would only stop North Korean vessels if they intruded in South Korea’s territorial waters -- a right that it has often vowed to exercise. The fact is, North Korean vessels have challenged South Koreans in the Yellow Sea in bloody battles in June 1999 and June 2002, with casualties on both sides.
This is not to say that PSI serves no real purpose. It is quite possible that nations, acting in concert, could use it to keep weapons of mass destruction, and the means to make and fire them, out of the hands of Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists.
That purpose is more than theoretical. Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and A.Q. Khan, the “father” of the Pakistani A-bomb, profited immensely from selling his expertise to clients, including Libya and North Korea.
For now, however, the Obama administration, while wielding the abstraction of PSI as a tool for countering proliferation, will have to settle on diplomatic pressure, again as exercised during the Bush administration.
The first task is to strengthen sanctions against North Korea, getting China and Russia to stop the sale of all arms and spare parts to the North Korean army. China, as the major source of food, fuel and fertilizer for North Korea, could induce the North to knock off the launches and nuclear tests and focus on the overwhelming question of feeding its hungry people and restoring its dilapidated economy.
China is extremely reluctant to act firmly, but its hugely favorable trade balances with the United States and South Korea may be considerations that Beijing should not ignore. Although U.S. officials don’t say so, trade issues with China could well become linked to China’s cooperation vis-a-vis North Korea.
China and the rest of the world have another, more disturbing, reason for cooperating to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program. That’s the danger of a nuclear arms race in the region.
Japan is more enraged than South Korea or the United States by North Korea’s nuclear shenanigans. It is not believed to have developed nuclear warheads, but Japanese scientists and engineers, imbued with skills acquired in establishing nuclear power plants, surely have the know-how. Taiwan also is presumably capable of developing nuclear weapons.
Optimistically, it’s possible to imagine China agreeing that cooperation against proliferation is a fine idea. Pessimistically, China might view Japan and Taiwan as enemies against which it would need to build its defenses in league with North Korea. In such a scenario, South Korea would be exposed, and a regional war is not hard to imagine.
That’s a doomsday scenario that may be as fanciful as are the hopes of a denuclearized North Korea. It’s also likely that the two Koreas will go on confronting one another as diplomats look for solutions. Like much of the rest of the world right now, South Koreans may be more worried about economic issues. Even after Pyongyang’s recent provocations, South Koreans tend to view war as a distant apparition, not an immediate nightmare.
In the end, threatening North Korea with undefined “consequences” or with PSI actions isn’t going to persuade Pyongyang to calm down and return to talks on abandoning its nuclear weapons program. The Obama administration, like its predecessor, will have to rely on diplomatic pressure.
Historians may someday view all that diplomacy, however frustrating, as a success for staving off a terrible conflict while Kim Jong Il, ailing and weak physically, deals with his own problems of appeasing the power drives of his generals.