Did US diplomatic blunders trigger the North Korean bomb?

For Chinese academics in Beijing, US President George W Bush has only his own administration to blame for the nuclear test that North Korea announced on October 9, shocking the world and particularly the Asian region. While the political debate rages across much of the United States, these academics say the answer is clear from their North Korean counterparts as to whether engagement or isolation was more effective in curbing the nuclear ambitions of the dictator Kim Jong Il.

“I was surprised to hear my North Korean friends note how much they appreciated Bush’s moves that entitled them to freely develop nuclear weapons after being restrained by agreements under the Clinton era,” said a Beijing-based academic, who declined to be identified.

A book published by the Pyongyang Foreign Language Publishing House, titled “Intelligence Competition of the DPRK and the US,” which was translated from the into Chinese and published in 2000, argues that Washington’s unrealistic adoption of policies to collapse the Kim regime helped Pyongyang win a decade-long diplomatic battle with Washington.

There are strong indications that North Korea may be preparing for additional tests as well, despite widespread pressure to suspend them, including from China, North Korea’s most important ally. US media reported that the US has detected what were described as “suspicious vehicle movements” and in the area where the north conducted its first underground test. It is believed that the first test may not have been completely successful, given its small size.

Some four years ago, Pyongyang was still cooperating on implementation of the “Agreed Framework” and waiting for the further processing of light-water-reactor construction and the normalization of economic and diplomatic ties. At the time, its bilateral relationship with Washington was relatively warm after Secretary of State Madeleine Albright even paid a visit in 2000. But when President Bush named North Korea along with Iran and Iraq as members of an “axis of evil” in 2001, Pyongyang realized its tolerance and patience might not very be realistic. North Korea’s foreign affairs ministry at the time said, “This is, in fact, nothing short of declaring a war against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.”

Pyongyang subsequently acknowledged having a clandestine program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons after James Kelly, then assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, confronted representatives from Pyongyang during an October 2002 visit. Pyongyang reportedly extended the moratorium unilaterally but announced that it would no longer observe the missile moratorium in March 2005.

Former Clinton administration officials, such as former Ambassador Wendy Sherman and Charles Pritchard, have heavily criticized the Bush administration’s refusal to hold direct talks with Pyongyang. In a May 2005 speech, Sherman warned of a nuclear crisis as she challenged the Six-Party-talks, which include Washington, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Moscow, and Pyongyang, for being too time-consuming.

“A forum is not a policy, and talks that never go anywhere quickly lose their appeal and any hope of effectiveness,” Sherman said. “In fact, painfully, four years after creation of such a forum, North Korea appears to have more nuclear weapons than [it had] at the start of the Bush administration, and the Bush administration has fewer options to stop North Korea, particularly in the wake of Iraq, than it had four years ago.”

Pritchard, who was also the Bush administration’s special envoy for negotiations with North Korea before resigning and in 2003, also, argued in an Op-ed piece published in June that, “by not talking with North Korea we are failing to address missiles, human rights, illegal activities, conventional forces, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and anything else that matters to the American people.”

At the heart of the Bush administration’s North Korea policy has been a misconception that the ailing state ultimately would collapse of its own weight. But in “Intelligence Competition of the DPRK and the US,” Japan-born North Korean Chun Chul Nam argues, “The U.S has been a captive of the ‘North Korea collapse’ fantasy. The US has kept compromising, but it has failed to fulfill its promises written in the agreed framework by playing dilatory tactics, desperately waiting for the collapse of Kim’s regime.”

That isn’t going to happen, Chinese academics say. What’s more Washington’s hope that Beijing would cut off fuel and food relief to Pyongyang to pressure the North Korean state is unrealistic and may stimulate harsher actions from Pyongyang. China will continue to keep North Korea from collapsing because of its concerns about a South Korean takeover and a potential US military force on its border across the Yalu River.

For the international community, co-existing with a nuclear-armed North Korea is a dire prospect. But, for a dictator facing both internal pressures to open up and external pressures for collapse, initiating a nuclear test might simply reflect Kim’s frustration over the survival of his regime and its starving subjects.

As observers in Washington and Beijing blamed the Bush administration’s policy for today’s consequences, Michael Green, former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council defended the policy by arguing that Kim is the only one to blame as he has wanted nuclear weapons for decades.

“He sees them as indispensable for his regime survival. Regardless of whether the U.S takes a hawkish or dovish policy. He needs them to compete with the South, to resist China, and to please his generals. I don’t think the North ever intended to give them up,” he noted, adding, “The Clinton administration did not know North Korea was cheating.”

Contrary to the anxiety and anger of the international community, Pyongyang has been relatively calm after the test. Aside from temporarily cutting off communication and aircraft landings, cross-border trade has been business-as-usual before, according to Beijing-based businessmen and citizens of China’s border city of Dandong. A six-member North Korean academic delegation was visiting Beijing for a conference on October 12, according to Beijing academics. Beijing-based traders say their North Korean customers are making business trips to the Chinese capital, while Chinese businessmen at the border expressed their optimism over trade and investment with North Korea.

Believing Pyongyang means to peacefully develop its economy, Chinese academics say it is time for the six-party attendees to unify and urge Pyongyang to return to the talks as a way to force a halt to further nuclear weapons development. “Otherwise, Pyongyang would keep developing its nuclear technology amid talks,” said Zhang Yu-shan, a researcher at China’s Jilin Academy of Social Science.

“To North Koreans, living in such poor conditions, why not risk anything for a battle,” said Cui, Kim’s onetime schoolmate. “They are not afraid of death.”