According to the South Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has told a senior Chinese envoy that “he is sorry about the nuclear test” and plans no more of them. Meanwhile North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator tells ABC’s Diane Sawyer in Pyongyang that, “We believe that the nuclear test that we’ve already held gives us full deterrent, sufficient deterrent power, and we hope to return to six-party talks.” While Condoleezza Rice says she has had no confirmation of the South Korean reports let’s just assume for the moment that they’re true.
What would North Korea have to lose, after all, by apologizing? The Chosun Ilbo apparently doesn’t quote the Dear Leader directly. Maybe he said, “We regret the nuclear test. We regret the fact that the Americans, because of their hostile stance, forced us to do it.” According to a poll taken by Research Plus, 43% percent of South Koreans think the U.S. is “responsible for North Korea’s declared nuclear test,” while only 37% blame Pyongyang! Especially following the criminal invasion of Iraq, a whole lot of people around the world empathize with any clear target of U.S. imperialist pressure and threats.
The fact is that whatever Kim said about it to the envoy, he’s exploded a nuclear device. It was a pretty puny one, but the U.S. is making a big deal about it, and so is Pyongyang’s propaganda machine. The nuclear test boosts national pride in North Korea, and perhaps to a surprising extent in South Korea too. (A poll taken in 2004 showed 20% of South Koreans would support the North in the event of a U.S. attack. The current prime Minister Roh Moo-hyun himself has told an audience in the U.S. that the North’s interest in acquiring nuclear weapons is understandable in the face of U.S. hostility.)
The test, whatever Washington is claiming, does strengthen the DPRK’s hand in the next round of negotiations. The North Koreans have been saying all along that they’re willing to jettison their military nuclear program in exchange for a clear U.S. pledge not to attack them. Now they’ll say, “We’ve had our test, and it gives us sufficient deterrent power.” (This by the way strikes me as a very significant statement from the above-quoted chief nuclear negotiator, tending to confirm the report that Kim has indeed said there will be no further tests.) “It is a great accomplishment for our people and our Juche ideology. Nevertheless, we are willing, as we have said in the past, to dismantle our military nuclear program in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to attack us, and to return to the ‘Agreed Framework’ established in Geneva in 1994.” Beijing will support them in this. So might some U.S. pundits. (A Boston Globe editorial recently declared, “Bush ought to...test the seriousness of North Korea’s repeated offers to trade away its nuclear and missile programs for the end-of-enmity agreement that only Washington can provide.”) The regime in Pyongyang is simply asking Washington to publicly abandon its stated intention to effect regime change on the peninsula.
It would be a major setback for Dick Cheney and his neocons if the U.S. embraced such an agreement. Cheney has stated, in specific connection to North Korea, that the U.S. doesn’t negotiate with evil, but defeats it. On the other hand, if Bush bites the bullet and agrees to such a pledge, he can always spin it the way he spun Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s abandonment of WMD programs in 2003. He can say, “We forced a dictator to chuck his nuclear program through negotiations, from a position of strength.” Pyongyang can say, “We forced the Americans to drop their belligerent attitude.” It just might also be able to say, “We’ve acquired international cooperation for our peaceful nuclear program.” Everybody saves face.
I’ll bet this is the scenario preferred in Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing, Moscow and maybe even Tokyo. Maybe the battered Bush administration will back off from its confrontational stance, having consulted with friendly governments, in particular the Chinese who endorsed UNSC Resolution 1718 (condemning the nuclear test) while striving to defuse the U.S.-DPRK confrontation. Maybe reason will prevail in Washington. I wouldn’t bet on it though.
is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative
Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese
history. He can be reached at:
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