North Korea and the United States are locked in a game of high-stakes brinkmanship whose key players include Russia and China. A nuclear Middle East and the coming US war against Iraq are also factors in the test of wills between President George W. Bush and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il
The latest near-showdown was quickly defused by Washington.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington and Korean Peninsula sources report: Tuesday, December 9, the seized Singapore-registered So San was on course for the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia – after being intercepted in the Arabian Sea before it reached Yemen with a cargo of 15 North Korean Scud missiles – when Pyongyang slapped down an ultimatum to Washington: Release the freighter and cargo or else North Korea will invade South Korea, a threat which opened up the prospect of nuclear war.
The ultimatum was conveyed through “open intelligence channels” between the two countries. It carried no deadline. Therefore, no ticking clock needed dismantling by the Bush administration.
On Wednesday, December 11, after Yemen undertook to discontinue its ballistic missile purchases from Pyongyang, Bush, as US commander-in-chief, signed a directive ordering the US Navy to release the vessel and its cargo to the Yemen authorities.
The last time a US government faced a nuclear ultimatum was during the 1973 Middle East war, when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev squared off against President Richard Nixon, demanding that Israel lift its siege over the Egyptian Third Army in Sinai. Neither Washington nor Moscow has to this day admitted how close they came to a nuclear showdown.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington say the president’s signature was needed mainly to put to rest a fierce debate at the top of his administration over whether to call North Korea’s bluff. The alignment of officials for and against toughing it out with Kim Jong-Il differed from the lineup on how to handle Saddam Hussein.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, the mandarins at State and CIA Director George Tenet led the camp favoring a quiet end to the crisis before it got out of hand, arguing that a military confrontation – let alone a nuclear standoff – with North Korea would be a major mistake.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice agreed – but for a different reason. They said the United States must not be deflected from its main mission of ousting Saddam.
War with North Korea would also be costly – and not only in terms of manpower and lives lost. Experts put the price of US military action on the Korean Peninsula at about $100 billion – on top of the $150 billion to $200 billion cost of waging war on Iraq. It is doubtful whether the US economy could stand the strain of an outlay that large over so short a time.
Deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage’s departure for Seoul was meanwhile pushed forward in order to place an administration point man with South Korea’s political, military and intelligence officials, in time for the tense presidential elections in that country on December 18. However, according to partial results, the next occupant of the presidential palace in Seoul will be the liberal Roh Moo-hyun, who has been labeled anti-American and seeks to revise the 50-year old alliance with Washington under which 37,000 US troops guard the country against the North. Roh also favors reconciliation with the communist regime in Pyongyang. His election may hinder rather than help the Bush administration’s attempts to come to grips with the North Korean nuclear issue.
From the first, the section heads in the CIA as well as US military commanders advocated picking up Kim Jong-Il’s gauntlet. US military circles argued that America’s assurance that it had no plans to attack North Korea – as Powell did on December 16 – would be taken by Pyongyang as American pliancy, making the US military stance on the Korean Peninsula – and in the Middle East – that much more difficult. North Korea, they warned, would correspondingly harden its attitude on its nuclear program and try to dictate terms; Saddam would capitalize on the North Korean leader’s example by challenging the United States with a military or terrorist threat on the same scale, hoping to achieve the same results
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly Issue No. 89 “At Nuclear Brink – Middle East Poised to Tip Over?”)
On one point, at least, the hard-line faction in Washington was soon vindicated. The ultimatums kept on coming.
On Tuesday, December 17 – one week after the Yemeni Scud boat episode – North Korea again rattled its nuclear saber. A statement from Kim Jong-Il’s government declared that war on the Korean Peninsula was unpreventable and its atomic program would go through – unless the United States signed a nonaggression treaty with his regime.
At this point, Washington dug in its heels, implicitly threatening to cut off food aid, thereby ratcheting up the sanctions that include a moratorium on oil deliveries.
The view from Pyongyang
Clearly, Pyongyang is engaging in nuclear blackmail to forward an agenda, in which DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Korean experts discern a dual rationale.
Firstly, Kim is determined to retain his independence of action in foreign and state policy. Second, by weaving his munitions industry and nuclear weapons production into Middle East and Gulf flashpoints, he gains leverage on world issues and distances the pressures on him by spreading his wings far from his frontiers. This makes it hard for Washington to deal with the North Korean nuclear program as a purely Asian issue.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington say the US administration has also come to believe that Russia and China are quietly supporting North Korea’s nuclear proliferation strategy as part of their growing opposition to a US military offensive against Iraq.
North Korean nuclear activity in the Middle East (See previous DEBKA-Net-Weekly issues on collaboration with Middle East nations) and its sales of ballistic missiles are building up to an irksome distraction for Washington as it plots its strategy for the region.
Pyongyang has its hand in nuclear programs and missile technology transfers with several Middle Eastern countries, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Step by step, its engineers and technology have been quietly investing in the Libyan-Egyptian al Kufra nuclear center (where Iraqi nuclear scientists are also employed), its long-range missile components are assembled in Egyptian factories near Alexandria, Syria’s medium-range missile assembly plant and chemical and biological weapons laboratories near Hama in the north use North Korean components and technology and, as most recently confirmed by satellite imagery, North Korea transferred nuclear manufacturing facilities, including uranium enrichment equipment, to secret Iranian sites at Natanz and Arak. These are all multibillion projects.
Any US military action in that part of the world would have to take those activities into consideration. In order to neutralize North Korea’s leverage in the Middle East, the United States has a number of options:
A. It could come to an arrangement with North Korea for its disengagement from the Middle East and the Arab world. That would almost certainly entail a US compromise with regard to the scope and aims of North Korea’s nuclear program in Asia, on terms unacceptable to Washington.
B. US President George W. Bush could appeal personally to the new Chinese president, Hu Jintao, and Russian president Vladimir Putin, asking them to lean hard on their North Korean neighbor to make him accommodate Washington’s demands and terminate his nuclear weapons program immediately and unconditionally.
Proliferating for Profit
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that Bush did exactly that when he visited Beijing and Moscow last May, when Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, was still in office. He did not mince his words, warning both leaders that their relations with Washington were on the line over this issue.
The US President was astounded when he found himself politely but effectively rebuffed. Jiang and Putin contented themselves with a half-hearted approach to the North Korean leader. But Jiang explained that his hands were full with the leadership changeover in Beijing, while Putin said he was too busy fighting terrorism to find time for an issue as complicated as North Korea’s nuclear disobedience.
Both added that they could not ignore the long arm of North Korean military intelligence which had distributed its secret cells, some trained in terror tactics, across the vast Chinese and Russian Far East regions.
In fact, senior US administration officials believe the Russian and Chinese rulers cued Kim they were merely going through the motions of carrying out the American president’s wishes, while advising him he still had their green light to go ahead with developing his nuclear program and Middle East trade. They realized that China and Russia were both intent on feathering their own strategic nests, so to speak.
As long as North Korea claims attention as a major stumbling block to American goals in the Middle East, by handing out nuclear assistance and ballistic missiles, it will take the heat off the indirect attempts by China and Russia to obstruct those same American goals.
The two powers also own a vested interest in Pyongyang’s continued commerce. Russian and Chinese companies contribute substantial elements to some of the North Korean multi-billion nuclear and missile projects in Middle Eastern countries, earning them roughly a cool one billion dollars a year each. Both would like to keep these projects going uninterrupted.
Putin, in particular, complains that his support for American’s war plans against Iraq has cost Moscow dear financially and cut into his political standing at home. He says he cannot afford any more sacrifices. To back up his complaint, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report, Russian energy giant LUKOIL published a letter it claimed to have received from Iraqi deputy oil minister announcing Baghdad was ending its contract for the development of the West Qurna-2 oil field with LUKOIL and two other Russian companies, Zarabezhneft and Machinoimport. Iraq’s ambassador to Moscow, Abbas Khalaf, said Sunday, December 15, that Baghdad terminated the contract because LUKOIL had failed to start work at the West Qurna-2 field. He dismissed LUKOIL’s argument that it was hampered by UN sanctions against Iraq, retorting that other Russian companies had been able to maintain their operations in the country.
According to Itar-Tass news agency, LUKOIL had a 68.5 percent share in the $20 billion project. The two other Russian companies each had 3.25 percent and Iraq’s Oil Ministry had 25 percent. In an interview with the Moscow Times, a top LUKOIL executive said Baghdad had rudely awoken the company from its dream of becoming the lead operator of a vast Iraqi oil field. This was Saddam’s payback for Moscow’s vote for UN Security Resolution 1441 on arms inspections.
In these circumstances, Putin feels justified in seeking to cut Russian companies’ losses and not adding to them by clipping North Korea’s wings.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, the Chinese have taken a similar tack. Bush did not bother appealing to incoming Chinese leader Hu to squeeze North Korea, knowing the answer he would receive: Hu would say he was just setting out and too new in office to undertake policy decisions as major as this. The Bush administration may make one last approach to the outgoing president Jiang, offering him an open line to Washington after he retires – but with little prospect of success.
In the final reckoning, the United States will face the same narrow option of going it alone as it does in Iraq. Its task will be complicated by having to grapple with North Korea’s nuclear facilities in two world regions: at home in Asia and in the Middle East, where Kim Jong-Il has spread his nuclear and ballistic missile web.