U.N. Nears North Korea Resolution

Peter Beck
Northeast Asia Director, International Crisis Group
Friday, October 13, 2006 12:00 PM

Peter Beck , Northeast Asia director for the International Crisis Group , was online Friday, Oct. 13, at noon ET to discuss possible next steps in the international response to North Korea's nuclear test claim. The U.S. is asking the United Nations Security Council for a quick resolution as well as economic sanctions. Russia and China have expressed reservations, while Japan has announced a ban on imports from North Korea. In response North Korea has promised "strong countermeasures" if the sanctions are enforced.

Beck, who is based in Seoul and fluent in Korean, directs the ICG's project in South Korea. He is also an adjunct professor at Ewha University and a member of the Ministry of Unification's Policy Advisory Committee.

The transcript follows.


Peter Beck: Good afternoon! Actually, it is already early Saturday morning here in Seoul. This has been one of the longest weeks of my life, but what better way to end it than to have my first chat with my fellow Washington Post readers! There's lots to discuss. A new UN Security Council resolution could pass within a matter of hours. Beijing and Seoul just held a summit, which can only make Pyongyang more nervous. What should the world do about the North's alleged test? As if the test were not enough, we will likely see a new exodus of refugees into China this winter. The International Crisis Group will publish a report on the looming refugee crisis on Wednesday!


Arlington, Va.: Who can blame the North Koreans or the Iranians for that matter for pursuing nukes? Bush lumped them all together in his "axis of evil" and sent the military into Iraq. Surely they realized after that that the way for them to survive would be to get nukes now as a deterrent. If they have the know-how why should they be precluded from having such weapons when so many other countries have them? Why do countries like ours assume we have the right to tell the North Koreans "you can't have nuclear weapons, but we get to keep ours"? It seems rather arrogant.

Peter Beck: I agree that President Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech was the start of our long spiral downward. I wrote a column at the time that basically said, "If the Bush Administration would like lessons in name-calling and brinksmanship, the North will be happy to provide them." The Iraq invasion did teach the North that they need to be as deadly as possible to avoid the same fate. But shouldn't we do everything we can to prevent horrible regimes like Iran, Pakistan and North Korea from possessing the ultimate weapon? Ooops, our good friends in Pakistan already have some!


Honolulu, Hawaii: It has never been a secret that the current administration's policy towards the DPRK is to seek the conditions for it's implosion. Like in Iraq, the administration has no plan for the consequences.

That China and the Republic of Korea are concerned about an ensuing flood of refugees is also no secret. Both are concerned that in the aftermath the "German problem" will revisit the Korean Peninsula, retarding their growing bilateral economic ties.

Would it be safe to say that had Washington constructively addressed these concerns of the DPRK's neighbors, the dynamics of the current situation would have more flexibility?


Peter Beck: Aloha! You are quite right that the Bush Administration seems unconcerned about the consequences of a North Korean implosion. Is there any way for the US to reassure China and South Korea about this, other than to say, "Just send us the bill!" I don't think that is going to happen!


Washington, D.C.: What is the mood like in Seoul? Are people anxious? Or just angry? It seems like they have the most at stake in this, being a neighbor and adversary. What would be their ideal outcome? Obviously a collapse would burden them overwhelmingly, but a strong regime is bad also...

Peter Beck: The huge gaggle of reporters who have been flying in all week tell me that they are surprised that they do not see signs of fear on the streets of Seoul. It is true that people are going about their daily lives and it is not the first topic of conversation, but if you ask, people are a bit anxious. Unlike the missile test three months ago, this has gotten everyone's attention. You are right that the South has the most at stake, but most South Koreans just ignore the North. They are focused on their families and jobs and would like a very gradual unification in the distant future.


Honolulu, Hawaii: The Seoul Times ran an article this week that referred to reports that the PLA was beefing up the border. Can Jilin and Heilongjiang be effectively cordoned off if the need arose?

Peter Beck: Beijing is also said to have started building a fence along the border too. I have read the same reports, but I have not been able to independently confirm them. The border is more than 700 miles long, so I don't see how China can seal its border, any more than the US can seal the US-Mexico border anytime soon.


Munich, Germany: I've noticed that many of the punitive measures being suggested for North Korea were also imposed on Zimbabwean President Mugabe and his entourage, and those measures had absolutely no effect on changing Mugabe's political behavior. What makes people think that Kim Il Jong will give up the bomb if Mugabe wouldn't rein in his oppressive regime?

My other point is that, although China and probably Russia have more leverage on North Korea, Kim Jong Il wants unilateral talks with the U.S., and the Bush administration refuses to be blackmailed into talking with Pyongyang. In some ways, it seems like the rest of the world are bystanders in a dispute between North Korea and the United States, that at times, resembles a bad marriage.

Peter Beck: I agree that sanctions are not likely to bring Kim Jong-il to his knees. The reaction of the United States and Japan was entirely predictable. Given that the Bush Administration refuses to talk to the North bilaterally, the country to watch is China. They are the ones that could make life really difficult for the North. The bad marriage metaphor is usually used to describe U.S.-South Korea relations!


Washington, D.C.: Do you think it really was a nuclear test, and do think it matters whether or not it was real?

Peter Beck: I think we have to assume until it is proven otherwise that the North conducted a test, however small it may have been. I will be very surprised if we determine that the North did not test. This would be a great embarrassment to the regime.


Arlington, Va.: How seriously do you take North Korea's threat to Japan re: imposing sanctions? Is it just talk?

Peter Beck: Unless Kim Jong-il has a death wish, the threat against Japan is an empty one. Japanese sanctions will hurt the North a bit, but not too much as around 80% of North Korea's trade is with China and South Korea.


Atlanta, Ga.: Is it correct to think that N. Korea's military threat to the U.S. is nominal at best but the threat they pose economically is huge. If a serious disturbance occurs resulting in millions of refugees flooding into China and S. Korea wouldn't this harm the economies of S. Korea, China and Japan? If so,who will buy the U.S. massive debt used to finance the recent tax cuts and the Iraq war? Basically overnight couldn't we see steep rises in interest rates and steep declines in the value of the dollar?

Peter Beck: North Korea is years away from developing a missile that could actually hit the United States and even more years from being able to develop a missile with a nuclear payload. What we do need to worry about first and foremost is a the threat of proliferation. An implosion would create a huge problem for China and South Korea. Stay tuned for our report next week!


Boulder, Colo.: What would you most like to see the Bush administration do in the coming weeks as regards this issue?

Peter Beck: Talk bilaterally with the North, but that seems impossible until we have regime change in Washington. The Bush Administration has painted itself into a corner and needs China or a third party to come to the rescue. That of course assumes the Bush folks want to be rescued...


Washington, D.C.: Follow-up question on whether the test was real: If it was real,why didn't they film it and release the films? Why didn't the let Dr. Sig Hecker use instruments to test the 'plutonium' they handed him? Why didn't they let him meet with nuclear scientists?

BTW, The Guardian just reported "Results from an initial air sampling after North Korea's announced nuclear test showed no evidence of radioactive particles that would be expected from a successful nuclear detonation, a U.S. government intelligence official said Friday."

Peter Beck: Well, they did let Sig into the Yeongbyeon reactor site to prove that they had removed the fuel rods, so perhaps they will let him visit again. I am always careful not to get too close to him...


Richmond, Va.: If the U.S. feels seriously threatened by N. Korea, and decides to fire missiles at suspected nuclear weapons sites. What do you feel the international reaction would be. Especially from the major players: S. Korea, China, Japan and Russia?

Peter Beck: This is the question I am asked the most by the South Korean media. Folks here are scared that the Bush Administration might be crazy enough to launch a preemptive strike on the North, but there are three problems. The quagmire in Iraq means that our military is already being stretched to the limit, and we don't even know where all of the key sites are in the North. Most importantly, we would be risking a horrible war on the Korean Peninsula! Not an option.


Baltimore, Md.: How difficult would it be to simply assassinate Kim Jong-Il? Could his replacement somehow be worse? Couldn't a semi-serious world organization like NATO bless the hit?

Peter Beck: We saw in Iraq that the U.S. is not very good at taking out leaders, but even if we could, the alternative to Junior could be even worse. In a best-case scenario, the North would find its own Park Chung-hee--a military dictator with a vision for developing the country, but a more likely scenario is a military junta like Burma. Not pretty.


Alexandria, Va.: Good morning, NK has had Seoul in the sights of a formidable artillery and rocket arsenal for decades now. Since its stated aim is reunification, the North won't benefit from a radioactive South. The nuclear weapon essentially changes nothing for the ROK. What are its incentives or motivations for punishing the North?

Peter Beck: That is one reason why South Koreans are not as worried as you might expect them to me. So the North has another way of killing us? The fear here is that pushing the North too hard could lead to an even more serious crisis, and no one of any political stripe wants the crisis to get so serious that investors start heading for the door.


Baltimore, MD.: I find it ironic that Bush-bashers are using Iraq and North Korea in the same complaint. He's handled the two situations completely differently; diplomatically multilateral with one, and unilaterally military with the other. If we reconstruct history such that Bush acted on North Korea and not on Iraq in 2003, would we have a better situation today?

A serious 2003 military action against North Korea would have had dire consequences - tens of thousands of Korean civilians dead along with thousands of U.S. troops in the conflict's opening days.

Letting France lead negotiations with Iraq would have given Saddam more time to build a nuke with the program we KNOW he had, and would probably have afforded him more comforts from a Eurocentric carrot-happy approach, while the Shiites under his iron hand would continue to starve and disappear from his secret police.

All said, I like the present better. You?

Peter Beck: A completely predictable quagmire in Iraq with dozens dying everyday? We always need to use a combination of carrots and sticks in any confrontation. Given that the French and South Koreans like carrots, we need to add a few sticks of our own, but in coordination! The Bush Administration pursues unilateraism where it can, and multilateralism where it cannot!


Richmond, Va.: Follow up: If the U.S. does not know where all the suspected sites may be, what is your feeling on US intelligence in N. Korea. Surely the S. Koreans have spies over there and hopefully share some of that information.

Peter Beck: Our human intelligence is very poor when it comes to North Korea. I doubt the South has many spies in the North. If they do, I sure don't know about it! I have had folks in the U.S. intel community tell me how "lucky" I was to be able to visit the North three times as a tourist!


Arlington, Va.: It's easy to say "talk bilaterally with the North," but about what? Remember, NK broke off the six-party talks because the U.S. took steps to prevent it from counterfeiting U.S. currency. Should the right to counterfeit be back on the table? Talking about nuclear energy bought the North ten more years of life last time we did it, but what are we really going to offer them this time that hasn't already been tried? ANY talks with NoKo are destined to fail, and the attempt by other nations to push the US into bilateral talks is just an attempt to make the U.S. bear all of the blame when those talks inevitably fall apart. It's easy to criticize U.S. policy, but when you look around, you see that no one else has any ideas either.

Peter Beck: It is very true that the North may not be interested in making a deal with the United States, no matter what the terms are, but we will never know until we stop the half-hearted and self-defeating approach taken by the Bush Administration. I am told by people in the know that there is no effort being made to try to sort out the accounts that were shut down in Macao. Some were being used for legitimate business transactions. Freeing those up MIGHT break the logjam in the talks.


Munich, Germany: Regarding bilateral talks between North Korea and the U.S., is it possible that North Korea is trying play the U.S. against China?

Peter Beck: No. The North has always wanted to have talks exclusively with the United States. I don't think the U.S. could compete with China when it comes to largesse. What has surprised me is that the North has not done a better job of playing South Korea off of the United States. The North really hasn't given the South Korean government anything to work with. I tell Koreans that "Koreans only" is North Korean code for "Give us more money." For the North, the South is nothing more than a cash register, and they never miss an opportunity to show their contempt.


Washington, D.C.: I was wondering if what we are seeing is an elaborate charade on the part of North Korea? First the missile tests did not go well, and now there is a substantial question whether a nuclear test was in fact carried out. Radioactive material has not been detected. While I cannot imagine why they would want to bluff, I am wondering how measured the U.N. response should be?

Peter Beck: It would be nice if sanctions were undertaken for a confirmed action. But then, Japan is the president of the UN Security Council this month, and the U.S. is all to happy to act first and confirm later. A resolution will only increase the chances that the North conducts another test in the near future.


Baltimore, Md.: I don't like the idea of a military strike that would lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of South Korean civilians, but does that justify letting 200,000 North Koreans suffer in horrible gulags, and many millions more live in abject poverty?

Peter Beck: This is precisely one of the many dilemmas we face when dealing with North Korea. Kim Jong-il has his own people and South Korea hostage.


Arlington, Va.: Is it true that scientists have noted that the seismic signatures from the supposed test were small for a typical nuclear weapon?

Is it true that Kim Jong-Il said size doesn't matter, it's how you use it ?

Peter Beck: The Korean press is reported today that the test does seem to have been very small.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Peter,

Do you see a regime change in the North any time soon?

Are there any possible heirs to power who might take the North in a different direction?


Peter Beck: Someday, there will probably be a military coup in the North, but who knows when. Son #1's claim to fame was getting caught trying to visit the Tokyo Disneyland. Son #2's claim to fame is that he tried to follow Eric Clapton around Europe last summer. Not exactly residential material. Perhaps after they have joined a fraternity...


Rockville, Md.: How much has the current events changed public attitudes in South Korea? Do more favor the U.S.? Or are they just angry at everyone? Would they favor a military take over of the North if it was quick? Is that even possible? I think it would require some cooperation from Generals in the North to be considered as reasonable.

Peter Beck: The North's provocative behavior has led to even more criticism of President Roh's decision to seek the return of operational control of Korean forces during wartime. The North's behavior only strengthens the position of conservatives in all capitals. Conservatives here tend to like the U.S. more than liberals. Guess which ones are likely to win the next presidential election?


Alexandria, Va.: Regarding bilateral talks - I always understood this request as yet another shot at South Korea in their war of international esteem. That is, the North never recognized SK as a legitimate state (still has South Korean reps in its rubber stamp legislature) but only as a puppet of U.S. masters, so that the only party it would treat with would be the U.S.

If this remains the case, what is the ROK's feeling on bilateral talks?

Peter Beck: Back in 1994, when we signed the bilateral Agreed Framework with the North, the South did feel left out, but gradually came to embrace it, even when the U.S. was ready to discard it. Today, there is almost no anxiety about the U.S. talking bilaterally with the North.


Berlin, Germany: Hey Peter, I'm glad to write to you from not Seoul but from Berlin, where I at moment am staying.

North Korea has built nuclear bombs the last two decades and is no doubt a nuclear state. Do you think that it is still possible for North Korea to renounce the nuclear weapons capabilities, after a half successful or half failed explosion test on October 9, in return of any rewarding compensations from the West?

Peter Beck: We won't know the answer to that question until we make an offer to Kim Jong-il that he shouldn't refuse. We haven't done that yet. This may not sound very appealing, but the alternatives are far worse!


Los Angeles, Calif.: Is the world community basically hoping and praying that the recent flare-up and nuclear test is part of the usual bellicose nonsense and posturing by the North Koreans which will amount to nothing and 'go away'. Or is there real concern that the regime is basically going over the edge, planning to create as much havoc and damage to South Korea physically, and the world economy economically, as possible? Or, is North Korea enabling itself into never being attacked, and the potential for hard currency from Islamic fanatics by creating nuclear weapons?

Thank you.

Peter Beck: That is a question that we really don't have the answer to. We have to hope that the North's leaders do not have a death wish, but at a minimum, they seem to be taking a hunker down attitude, biting the NGO hands trying to feed them, not showing any respect for the South Korean government, etc. Kim may be trying to return to the era of the Hermit Kingdom. All contact with the world, whether it is friend or foe, is problematic for the North. China is the source of information and banned CDs and DVDs. South Korean visitors to the North are a reminder that a better life is possible for Koreans. I still hope we can coax the North out of its shell.


washingtonpost.com: Thank you all for joining us.


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