North Korean Chutzpah

When the North Korean leader decided to openly violate the agreement to cease producing nuclear arms that his father had signed with the Clinton administration, he did a great deal to justify the inclusion of his country in the "axis of evil."

When the daily New York Post entitled its editorial about two weeks ago "Pyongyang's Chutzpah," it was even before North Korea had sabotaged and taken out of commission the monitoring systems of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which were installed about eight years ago in the country's five nuclear facilities. The newspaper was referring to a ship delivering ballistic missiles from North Korea to Yemen, with their final destination apparently another country suffering from sanctions, such as Iraq. It is true that delivering missiles to the Middle East in secret and ignoring UN-imposed sanctions is a very serious act, but the step taken by the regime of Kim Jong Il last week went far beyond chutzpah.

When the North Korean leader decided to openly violate the agreement to cease producing nuclear arms that his father had signed with the Clinton administration, he did a great deal to justify the inclusion of his country in the "axis of evil." But the real problem is not only the fact that North Korea has joined the list of pariah nations, but the fact that its ruler last week presented the Western world with a real challenge. Should they submit to and accept the flagrant violation of agreements, norms and international conventions and allow a country whose leadership is portrayed as dangerous and unstable to become a nuclear power?

In 1994, the Americans faced a similar dilemma. North Korea was energetically engaged in developing nuclear weapons, and the U.S. pressured it to abandon its intention. Only after exhausting negotiations was a treaty signed stipulating that North Korea would freeze its nuclear program, and in exchange it would receive a foreign aid package worth $5 billion. In October, the North Koreans surprised everyone when they announced that they had never abandoned their nuclear program, and had in fact continued to develop nuclear arms. Last week they took a much more flagrant and defiant step: They decided to violate, unilaterally and openly, the treaty they had signed with the U.S.

They began by removing surveillance cameras set up by the IAEA in nuclear facilities and breaking the seals and locks closing off the pool in the Yongbyon facility, where 8,000 nuclear fuel rods have been stored since 1994. The next step was transferring nuclear fuel into the reactor. These steps are especially serious because North Korea is a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and is thus committed to accepting UN monitoring.

Experts in the Bush administration expressed a fear that by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods into plutonium, North Korea could produce five or six nuclear bombs within a few months. The North Koreans will also be able to begin producing bombs based on uranium in 2004. There is no doubt that this is liable to undermine the relative stability of East Asia and lead to nuclear stockpiling by additional countries in the region, such as Japan and South Korea, for deterrence purposes.

The timing of the North Korean leader's moves is not a coincidence. While the U.S. is preoccupied with sending tens of thousands of its soldiers to the Middle East, and with attempting to establish an international consensus regarding the military campaign in Iraq, Kim can assume that for the time being he is immune to the use of military force against him. He is so certain of this that he sent his defense minister to warn the U.S. of "a cruel punishment and an uncontrollable catastrophe" if it does not submit to his blackmail. This is indeed chutzpah.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was quick to declare in response to the North Korean threats that the United States has no problem with conducting two wars at the same time. However, it can be reasonably assumed that the Bush administration will not resort to military steps in Pyongyang before the war in Iraq is over. Even afterward, however, a decision to use military power would be extremely problematic. There are 37,000 American soldiers posted on the border between the two Koreas, and they, like Seoul, are within range of North Korean artillery, which can deliver about half a million shells during the first hours of a war. This far from simple dilemma that will be facing President Bush will become more acute if the U.S. finds time to deal with North Korea only in a few months, and meanwhile acquiesces to the construction of five or six nuclear bombs. The use of military might against a country that has nuclear weapons is not a simple decision.

What characterizes the case of North Korea is that, as in the international war against terror and the struggle against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, most of the Western countries are not actively involved. This time around, as usual, the United States remains almost alone in the campaign against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Russia, which is helping Iran with its nuclear program, does not even consider proliferation to be a bad thing. China, to whom North Korea owes its existence, has "expressed hope" that the two sides (the U.S. and North Korea) will reach an agreement by peaceful means. And the European countries are not involved at all. In Paris, Berlin and Brussels, they apparently still do not understand that someone who breaks UN surveillance cameras will have no problem breaking the other rules of the game and threatening to use nuclear weapons - and perhaps even using them - against anyone who does not fulfill its demands.