File space Imaging satellite image of Yongbyon Nuclear Site in North Korea
Space Imaging Asia  /  Reuters file
A satellite image of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, 62 miles north of Pyongyang. North Korea has admitted diverting fuel for nuclear weapons at this facility.
By Senior correspondent
updated 5/19/2005 4:32:19 PM ET 2005-05-19T20:32:19

North Korea’s neighbors, fast losing faith in the Bush administration’s strategy of isolating the communist nation in order to prevent it from becoming a full-blown nuclear power, are beginning to look past the non-proliferation effort to a future where one or more new powers conclude they, too, must field nuclear weapons.

Over the past year, the “six nation talks” conceived by the Bush administration as a way to bring pressure to bear on the unpredictable government in Pyongyang have failed to make  progress. In that time, signs have emerged that several nations in the region may be rethinking longstanding commitments on nuclear weapons as they face a world in which the unpredictable Kim Jong Il has proven his ability to stare down the United States.

In a region with Japan and South Korea, both of which have the technology and finances to move into “the nuclear club” if they feel compelled, there is concern that one or more of them may react to a North Korean nuclear test precisely as Pakistan reacted to India’s test in 1998.

Recently, North Korea said it had extracted weapons-grade fuel rods from a nuclear reactor. The White House said that there is some evidence that Pyongyang was preparing for a nuclear test.

“The worry is that if North Korea tests a nuclear weapons, then it is difficult to put the genie back in the bottle and that it triggers a host of other countries to reconsider their own pledges not to pursue nuclear weapons,” says Kurt Campbell, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific in the Clinton administration and is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It could lead other countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to go nuclear.”

China, too, is concerned about such a scenario, though in the long run the Chinese may see a nuclear North Korea — still highly dependent on Beijing for food, fuel and diplomatic support — as a price worth paying in return for the collapse of such a major U.S. commitment to its allies in Asia.

Last-ditch effort
U.S. officials confirmed on Thursday they took the highly unusual step of talking directly with the North Koreans in secret bilateral talks in New York last week, something the administration vowed not to do when it first came to office. Separate talks between North and South Korean officials ended Thursday on a similar down note.

“People are still trying to get the North Koreans to come back to the table, but there is a feeling that a lot of time has passed and that this process can’t go on indefinitely without some progress being made,” said a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I’m sure the consequences of a failure of the talks are being talked about, but we’re not giving up at this point.”

Nonetheless, in Washington, as in Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul and other regional capitals, and in the Vienna offices of the International Atomic Energy Agency, attention is beginning to focus on a point beyond the current talks — beyond even a North Korean nuclear test, an event that many intelligence analysts now fear to be imminent. Satellite photos in recent weeks have shown what American intelligence officials say appears to be preparations for such a test in a remote northeastern corner of North Korea.

Early fallout
Since the talks faltered last summer, public statements and investigations by international nuclear monitors indicate that the long dormant nuclear weapons ambitions of U.S. allies in the region may be awakening.

South Korea was investigated late last year by the IAEA, the U.N.’s international nuclear inspection agency, after revelations that forced the U.S. ally to concede it had been hiding experiments in uranium and plutonium that took place as late as 2000.

Like many nations once ruled by military dictatorships, South Korea was known to have attempted to build a nuclear weapon during the late Cold War period, following President Richard Nixon’s decision to reduce the U.S. troop deployment there by a full division.

Life on the knife's edge

Today, South Korea has 19 nuclear power plants, a vibrant high-tech and manufacturing economy and a sophisticated, U.S.-backed military on its northern frontier. According to a recent issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, conditions, and especially the large and well-funded South Korean nuclear industry, “enables the South to keep the door to the proliferation path slightly ajar.”

“Much of our thinking for the past two decades, and in Japan, too, I would say, has been based on the idea that we are under the U.S. nuclear umbrella,” says a South Korean diplomat based at the United Nations. “If the U.S. cannot prevent North Korea from testing a nuclear weapon, how can it deter North Korea from using one? That’s the basic question being asked today,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Contributing to the calculus, the Bush administration recently announced plans to reduce U.S. troops stationed in South Korea from 37,000 to 25,000 by next year.

Beyond the taboo
Proliferation experts have long been concerned about Japan's civilian nuclear program, which includes the world's most extensive network of plutonium "breeder reactors," a type of power plant that produces large quantities of weapons-grade byproduct. As a result, Japan is often described as a "paranuclear" state in academic studies of the issue. 

It had long been assumed that Japan, the only nation ever to be the victim of nuclear weapons, would never cross the threshold. But the taboo against public discussion of a Japanese nuclear weapon fell by the wayside when North Korea tested a ballistic missile in 1998 on a trajectory that took it over Japanese territory before splashing down in the South China Sea. Since then, Japan's military spending has risen to rank second only to that of the United States, and constitutional restrictions on the deployment of troops abroad and the use of force defensively are being redefined.

Building "The Bomb"In 2003, Shinzo Abe, a senior adviser to the Japanese prime minister, went further, saying Japan’s constitution did not rule out the idea of a nuclear deterrent. Another official, Yasuo Fukada, said more recently that circumstances in the region “could require Japan to possess nuclear weapons.”

Both comments set off a public furor. But unlike previous instances in Japan where senior officials broached the topic, neither Fukada nor Abe was forced to resign or even retract the statements. Indeed, Abe is now the chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and met with Vice President Dick Cheney at the White House on May 6.

On the periphery
Contrary to China's public statements, many believe China has spoken frankly to North Korea about the negative affects that a nuclear test or development of a nuclear arsenal would have on the region. But few expect China to go to the mat on the issue.

"China is saying, 'If you do this there will be horrible consequences'," says Campbell, who handled Asia policy in the mid-1990s at the State Department. "There are a lot more tensions in the China-North Korea relationship than are evident publicly. But China is not going to help the U.S. strangle the North economically, either. They take a longer-term view."

Both in China and South Korea, there is little appetite for tight economic sanctions that would cause a collapse, famine or a desperate political climate in North Korea. The fear of waves of refugees alone is seen as a reason to keep the reclusive North afloat.

Russia, also a member of the "six-nation" talks, believes the current standoff on nuclear testing is the result of the harder line adopted by the Bush administration.

Russia's ambassador to China, Igor Rogachyov, speaking in Beijing with the Interfax news agency, said "pressure is not an appropriate or acceptable method of communication" with North Korea. "There is a need to promote contacts with the North Korean authorities — China understands it very well and will never resort to this method to resolve the nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula.''

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