North Korean Tension


The deliberate and deeply destabilising escalation by North Korea of its confrontation with the UN and the US over its nuclear weapons programme appears designed to take advantage of both the US focus on Iraq and the election on Thursday of advocate of dialogue, Roh Moo-hyun, in the South.

The North's military dictators, many of whom are said to favour a policy of brinkmanship with the West, admitted that they had ordered the disabling of UN monitoring equipment at a mothballed nuclear reactor and the removal of seals on a storage facility for some 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods. The monitoring devices were put in place following a major confrontation in 1993 with the US over the country's nuclear weapons programme and a 1994 agreement under which the North agreed to relinquish its entire nuclear programme in exchange for supplies of fuel oil. Following Pyongyang's admission in October that it has been in breach of the agreement, the US, EU, South Korea and Japan suspended fuel shipments and the North has now responded by effectively repudiating the agreement, ostensibly because it is desperately short of fuel. The US insists the fuel rods are of no use for energy production but may be processed into weapons.

Pyongyang has clearly calculated that Washington will be in no mood for a showdown at this time, in part because of Iraq, but also because it is seriously out of step with the newly elected leadership in Seoul. Roh, candidate of the Millennium Democratic Party and the inheritor of the mantle of President Kim Dae-Jung, fought the election against a US-backed opponent in support of Kim's "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the North. That policy has been denounced by US Administration figures as "appeasement". Roh's election also reflects growing unease in the South at the role there of the US military - hundreds of thousands demonstrated last weekend against laws which preclude the local prosecution of US troops for offences against Koreans. A poll last week also showed some 73 per cent of voters reject the view that US foreign policy considers the interests of other countries. Roh has promised to negotiate a more equal relationship.

With little leverage against the North left in its diplomatic armoury, the US yesterday was involved in intensive exchanges with Moscow and Beijing in the hope they might prevail on Pyongyang. But the rapid escalation of tensions is deeply destabilising and worrying.