The continuing North Korean threat to regional peace and stability has again been demonstrated by its surprise artillery attack on the Yeonpyeong island under South Korean control on November 23, 2010, which has caused artillery exchanges between North and South Korea and by reports of its setting up an uranium enrichment plant with nearly 1000 centrifuges of unestablished origin ( Pakistan or Iran or local make).
According to the Beijing correspondent of The Hindu, the daily of Chennai (November 24), North Korea has said the artillery fire on the South Korean-controlled island was in response to live ammunition military drills that South Korea has been conducting in recent days. A statement from the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) of North Korea has been cited by the correspondent as alleging that South Korea had “recklessly fired into our sea area.”
These exercises and the repeated joint naval exercises by ships of the US and South Korean navies since the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel by North Korea in March have been of equal concern to North Korea and China. China had condemned these exercises in strong language and held its own exercises in the Yellow Sea area with live ammunition. Even though there is no evidence of Chinese complicity in the North Korean decision to fire the artillery, Pyongyang’s action would suit the Chinese objective of seeking to deter the exercises and joint exercises. Barring an uncontrolled and uncontrollable escalation of the artillery exchanges, one can rule out a war, which could damage the Chinese economy as badly as it would the economies of other countries in the region.
The usual Chinese reluctance to join the international community in condemning North Korea is an indicator of the limitations to the Chinese ability or willingness to moderate the behaviour of the North Korean regime. Even though China is the country with which North Korea has the closest relations, one should not over-estimate the Chinese ability to moderate the actions of the Pyongyang regime. Condemning China for its reluctance as some have done in the US could prove counter--productive.
Does Pyongyang have other objectives in addition to protesting against the South Korean military exercises? Is it, in addition, trying to force the US to make political and economic concessions to it and to promise to roll back the present policy of escalating sanctions? Or does it reflect emerging domestic challenges to the recent action of Kim Jong-il in having paved the way for his youngest son Kim Jong-Un as his eventual successor overlooking the claims of other aspirants in the party, the Armed Forces and the family itself. There is a strong possibility of the artillery attack being a diversionary move engineered by his son and his supporters in the Armed Forces to isolate those not yet reconciled to Kim Jong-Un succeeding his father as the ruler of North Korea. There were unconfirmed reports before the artillery attack that Kim Jong-Un had initiated a purge of those suspected of opposition to him.
The US-led international community must avoid over-reaction and deal with the situation tactically and tactfully without playing into the hands of those in North Korea who want an escalation of tension.
The initiative taken earlier by the North Korean authorities in showing an emerging uranium enrichment plant with the centrifuges to a visiting US scientist ( Stanford University professor Siegfried Hecker) on November 12 poses important questions. Did they show the centrifuges to the scientist in order to establish the authenticity of their claim and convince the US that nothing can prevent them from doing what they consider is in their national interest? Where from they got the centrifuges? Were they locally made or did they get them from Pakistan, which was known to have bartered in the past enrichment technology in return for long-range North Korean missiles to intimidate India? Or did Iran supply them as a barter for missile technology to intimidate Israel?
There is no fourth way of their securing the technology and the centrifuges. To find acceptable answers to these questions, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna has to interrogate A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist, who had negotiated Pakistan’s nuclear-missile barter with North Korea and had it implemented till his proliferations activities were discovered by the West and Gen. Pervez Musharraf was forced by the US to act against him.
Till now, the US and the IAEA have refrained from using the means of pressure available to them against Pakistan for forcing it to hand over A.Q.Khan for interrogation outside Pakistan. Outside North Korea and China, A.Q.Khan is the only person, who was having inside knowledge of North Korea’s capabilities and future plans. If his interrogation rules out the possibility of the new centrifuges having been locally manufactured or acquired from Pakistan, the needle of suspicion will more firmly point in the direction of Iran. The interrogation of A.Q.Khan has, therefore, to be the starting point of any exercise to find answers to these questions. By continuing to refrain from exercising pressure on Pakistan, the US will continue to grope in the dark.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.
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