When the Soviet Union collapsed and the cold war ended, the Pentagon made a decision to reorient the U.S. military. Instead of being tooled for a single conflict against a rival superpower, U.S. forces needed the ability to wage two wars simultaneously against "rogue states" in different parts of the world. The most commonly cited pair of potential enemies: Iraq and North Korea.
The great gulping sound heard across Asia last week was the fear that just such a scenario could come to pass. In its quickening preparations for war in the Persian Gulf, the Bush Administration has stated repeatedly that it wants no military conflict with North Korea—not now, nor in the foreseeable future. But that assurance fell on the deaf ears of Kim Jong Il, North Korea's reliably unpredictable dictator, who continues to pursue a deliberate collision course with the outside world. Kim has already pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and tossed weapons inspectors out of his country. Last week a U.S. intelligence source revealed that North Korea had activated a coal-fired steam plant connected to its reprocessing unit at Yongbyon, a sign that Kim is now getting ready to cook up some plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) passed the North Korean nuclear football to the U.N. Security Council last week, saying it was the Council's turn to do something about Kim's cranked-up weapons program. Meanwhile in Washington, CIA director George Tenet reminded a Senate committee that North Korea has a missile, untested as of yet, designed to reach the U.S. West Coast. Then, at the end of the week, constitutionally passive Japan drew a shocking line in the sand: Defense Agency director Shigeru Ishiba told a news agency that if Tokyo were to receive intelligence that North Korea was preparing a missile attack, Japan would have the legal right to launch a strike in self-defense. Suddenly the continent seemed that much closer to everyone's worst-case scenario: war in Asia, with nuclear-armed North Korea on one side, Japan and the U.S. on the other, and South Korea perilously trapped in the middle.
With Iraq occupying the mind share of the Bush Administration and the U.N., North Korea has become the problem that refuses to simmer gently on the back burner. A scarier possibility is that a fire has broken out in the kitchen, and all the parties involved—except Pyongyang—are refusing to smell the smoke. Since U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted North Korea last October with evidence that it was building a uranium-enrichment plant, contravening the spirit of a 1994 agreement that shuttered the country's nuclear program, the reigning theory has been that Dear Leader Kim was adroitly using the row, and Washington's Iraq distraction, to prop up his regime. He was playing a game of brinksmanship—pulling out of the NPT, throwing out the inspectors—to get fuel oil, food and some kind of normalization of relations with the U.S., which had been dangled before him in the waning days of the Clinton Administration.
That theory is giving way to a more troubling idea: Kim may realize that the ultimate brinksman needs the ultimate weapon. Japan's Defense Agency's Chief of Military Intelligence, Fumio Ota, came to that conclusion in a briefing to parliamentarians last week: Kim wants nukes, not some new carrots from the West. For North Asia, that renders irrelevant the debate over who is a bigger threat to the world—Kim Jong Il or far-off Saddam Hussein. If North Korea gets a nuclear armory, technologically advanced Japan and South Korea will also be tempted to build atom bombs. And Kim, with his boilersuits and bouffant hairdo, could succeed in dismantling the whole postwar security structure of the region and the attendant and prosperous economic ties that peace has fostered. As the CIA's Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee last week: "The domino theory of the 21st century may well be nuclear."
Aside from boasting a conventional army that could transform South Korea into "a sea of fire"—a threat from the North—how dangerous is Kim? Since the U.S.-brokered deal in 1994 to shut down his nuclear plants in return for aid and oil, Kim has been estimated to have enough fissile material to produce one or two atomic weapons. There is no evidence that he has tested such a device or has a workable nuclear bomb, although Tenet said last week that "it's a very good judgment" that weapons have been built. Kim has a stockpile of missiles that can reach South Korea and Japan, and he's developing longer-range models, including the Taepo Dong-2 three-stage missile designed to reach the continental U.S. Whether he could ever design a nuclear device small enough to fit in a missile is the question; but he also is known to have up to 5,000 tons of chemical agents, including mustard gas and sarin, and a biological weapons arsenal believed to include anthrax, smallpox and the plague.
At the time, the 1994 agreement was considered a shrewd compromise: the North's nuclear weapons program was supposedly closed down, and IAEA inspectors were stationed round-the-clock to ensure that it remained so. In return Kim was able to prop up his economy with free oil and the promise of two new $4.5 billion nuclear power plants that couldn't easily be used to make weapons. Since last October, China, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. have hoped to engineer a similar deal, perhaps with some new carrots and sticks. But they have also had to confront the fact that Kim's nuclear genie never went back into its bottle: he had been building a uranium-enrichment plant, the discovery of which prompted the current crisis.
Hard-liners in Washington have always suspected that Kim's long-term plan was to join the nuclear club. Now moderates are also convinced. "The North Korean government wants to have a nuclear arsenal," says Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. "The problem is we know their intentions and we don't like the answer. The only way to deal with the problem is to change the government in North Korea." Analysts in Beijing are coming to the same conclusion: that Kim's strategy is "regime survival." Kim believes that as a member of President George W. Bush's "axis of evil," he may be next in line for the Saddam Hussein treatment. And nothing will protect him better than a cache of nuclear weapons—along with the madman image he has in the West. Far be it from Kim to worry about starting a nuclear arms race in North Asia. "North Korea is so worried about its own security that nuclear weapons have really become part of its defense," says Yan Xuetong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "That makes it much harder to stop [the North]." Victor Cha, a professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. agrees: "Maybe they aren't really interested in negotiations. Maybe they want to realize some sort of nuclear capacity, and then talk."
A scary notion, and one that Washington is eager to dismiss. "We think this is solvable," a U.S. State Department official insists. But the diplomatic shuffle since last October has been a bust, with almost all the interested parties talking past one another and Pyongyang going blithely along its own road. The feeble diplomatic gestures that have been made only seem to embolden Kim. Last month the Dear Leader snubbed an envoy sent from Seoul to try to defuse the crisis. For weeks Pyongyang watchers have expected Kim to ratchet up the tension yet again with another missile test over Japan. "We're at the mercy of the North Koreans," admits a Capitol Hill staff member. "They are the masters of brinksmanship until they get to the point where they have crossed yet-undeclared red lines." Delay is to Kim's advantage, too. He has already announced that he is restarting the shuttered nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which would enable him to produce enough plutonium for one bomb a year. If he starts up the nearby reprocessing plant, he could churn out enough plutonium for several more bombs within a few months. At this point, there is only one person keeping North Korea from going into the international red zone: the Dear Leader himself. "The Bush Administration claims that the ball is in North Korea's court," says U.S. Senator Joseph Biden. "North Korea says it's in our court. From where I sit, the ball is sort of stuck in the net somewhere."
North Korea is insisting on direct talks with the U.S. It's an old Pyongyang ploy: it wants to be treated as an equal, without sharing prestige with South Korea or Japan. But Bush doesn't want to be viewed as going down Bill Clinton's route or to be accused of kowtowing to a rogue state. Washington says the international community has to resolve the crisis multilaterally, and was happy that the IAEA referred the North Korea issue to the Security Council. The next logical step in that process would be U.N. sanctions against North Korea, which Pyongyang has said it would consider as a declaration of war. In fact, the Security Council is unlikely to do anything soon.
What Washington really wants is some help from North Korea's neighbors, especially China and South Korea. But both of those countries are deep in flummox about the crisis. China is a past patron of Kim, and still provides the North with much of its food, oil and aid money. But the old days when the two countries were "as close as lips and teeth" are over. China's biggest worry is a North Korean collapse, which would bring all sorts of calamities—a tide of refugees, a powerful, unified neighbor, and the possibility of U.S. troops marching back toward the Yalu River. But it also abhors the possibility of a nuclear North, which could trigger an arms race on Beijing's front porch, undermining China's long-term strategy of becoming Asia's dominant power. Meanwhile, there are prominent signals that Washington and Beijing are not yet agreeing even to disagree. In Washington last week, U.S. Under Secretary of the State for Arms Control John Bolton told a news agency, "We don't see any way in which we can get the North Koreans to move without China's help." Secretary of State Colin Powell told a Senate hearing recently that China has "something of a responsibility and obligation to play a role in finding a way forward and not simply saying the United States has to solve this by talking directly [to North Korea]."
Yet Washington is reluctant to push too hard, lest it lose China's support in the Security Council on any potential resolutions authorizing use of force against Iraq. And China, in the middle of a leadership shuffle, has become even more internally focused than usual. Hu Jintao, who replaces Jiang Zemin as President next month, has yet to get his foreign-affairs team into place. Many younger Chinese diplomats are frustrated that the country isn't playing a greater role in resolving the crisis; in strategy sessions they have suggested limiting Beijing's aid to influence North Korea's behavior. That is something Vice Premier Qian Qichen, China's most experienced diplomat, has so far dismissed. (China has actually increased aid to the North since the crisis began, according to a Western diplomat who visits Pyongyang frequently.) "How can you expect an old man like Qian to prepare something very different on North Korea just before leaving?" says a Beijing-based academic. There are indications that China might be forming a harder line. On Jan. 23, a Beijing-controlled newspaper ran a signed editorial far more critical of North Korea than anything the government has yet dared to say. "It is not out of the realm of possibility that China may be subjected to nuclear blackmail," wrote Shi Yinhong, a professor at People's University in Beijing, "when North Korea becomes desperate."
South Korea, on the other hand, is Washington's ally and it formally condemns the idea of a nuclear North. The crisis is starting to pinch where it hurts: last week, Moody's Investors Service downgraded the outlook on the country's credit rating because of tension on the peninsula, signaling to investors that risk is increasing. But South Korea is going through its own seismic transition, both politically—Roh Moo Hyun will be sworn in as President next week—and in respect to its global standing. "Here's a country that has the 10th largest economy in the world, they've had the Olympics successfully, they had the World Cup successfully," said Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage recently, "and they're tired of the big boys playing basketball over their heads, whether it's China or Russia or the United States." Roh, 56, is part of the newly confident generation that sees the North less as an omnipresent threat than a crumbling basket case. (Many younger Koreans don't fret about a nuclear-armed North: those weapons, they believe, would be used outside the Korean peninsula.) The U.S. is pushing Roh to take a harder line. But as long as Washington refuses to negotiate with the North, it is not clear how that would help. "What is it we are trying to convince South Korea to do?" asks Stephen Bosworth, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a former U.S. ambassador to Seoul. "As someone who follows all this very fully, if I had to go back over the last two years and say, 'This is what we've been attempting to do,' it would be very difficult." Ashton Carter, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration, agrees: "We can't repair our relationship with South Korea until and unless we show we're on top of this issue."
While North Korea seems to live on the brink, the startling saber rattling by pacifist Japan last week doesn't necessarily mean Tokyo is also ready to take up residence there. In fact, Japan's vast Self-Defense Forces aren't well equipped or trained for pre-emptive attacks. Japan can't detect by its own surveillance whether Kim has started fueling missiles. It would need U.S. intelligence—and, ergo, permission from Washington.
Japan, however, is launching its first two spy satellites by the end of March, in response to the North Korean missile that landed in its waters in August 1998. For five decades Japan has resisted the temptation to arm itself with nuclear weapons, but it has five tons of plutonium inside the country and could produce nuclear weapons within a few months. While Kim may want a few nukes merely to prop up his shaky regime, he may end up triggering an Asian nuclear arms race. That's a race that could end very badly, a race in which nobody will win.