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Sharp divisions over North Korea

US advocates halting work on reactors, while allies want to keep them as bargaining chips.

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As North Korea ever more openly declares itself a nuclear state deserving of respect if not fear, the US and its allies in the region are further isolating the so-called "Hermit Kingdom."

With Pyongyang officially claiming nuclear capability, 23 Asian nations took an unprecedented step last week by calling on the North to rejoin the nonproliferation treaty. Meanwhile, the US is shopping a statement of denunciation at the UN. And Monday, a ferry service between Japan and North Korea, a lone source of cash and suspected smuggling of missile parts, was canceled again.

Despite these moves, sharp divisions remain beneath the agreeable unified surfaces, experts say. On nitty-gritty details about the nature of the North Korean regime - questions bearing strongly on next steps - there is still substantial debate among the allies, and within the US camp.

The North remains a hard-to-decipher "black box." The country's military capabilities, its impoverished conditions, the political dynamics of the regime, and the diplomatic "game" being played by "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il are all crucial strategic issues lacking consensus.

"One of the main problems we have is that there is no agreement on how to analyze or evaluate the North at this moment," argues Ronald Montaperto of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "There is no common understanding on the real situation inside the North."

Divisive reactors

Take, for example, the ongoing construction of light-water reactors in the North, a holdover from the scuttled 1994 Agreed Framework. Under the deal, the US and its allies agreed to build two nuclear reactors in North Korea in exchange for a freeze on the nation's nuclear weapons program. Despite Pyongyang's withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and eviction of UN inspectors from its Yongbyon facility, construction continues. This August sees a deadline to deliver components.

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