America in a difficult predicament over North Korea

On 31/10/06 US envoy Christopher Hill said six-party talks could resume soon. The announcement came after the Chief US negotiator, met North Korean officials in Beijing for their first discussions since the North Korea’s test of a nuclear weapon in October. This would mark the fifth round of talks between US, Japan, China and Russia, North and South Korea. And it represents the continuation of the saga between the US and North Korea, where Pyongyang is seeking security and financial guarantees from the US in return for abandoning its nuclear programme.

The 1st round of talks began in 2003 to find a way to resolve the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear programme. In September 2005, North Korea announced that it would give up its nuclear activities and rejoin the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, America failed to provide any meaningful security and economic incentives. Consequently, North Korea withdrew from the talks in protest at US financial sanctions, under which about $24m of funds were frozen. Since then the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang has deteriorated with both sides making acrimonious remarks regarding each other. In December 2005, a senior US diplomat branded North Korea a "criminal regime" involved in arms sales, drug trafficking and currency forgery. Consequently America began to squeeze North Korea’s commercial and financial interests abroad.

In July 2006 the economic suffocation prompted North Korea to test fire ballistic missiles including a long-range Taepodong-2, despite repeated warnings from the international community. In September 2006, North Korea blamed US financial sanctions for the deadlock in multilateral talks on its nuclear programme. In a speech to the UN General Assembly, envoy Choe Su-Hon said that North Korea was willing to hold talks, but the US stance had created an impasse. The US financial sanctions plus the absence of a security pact led North Korea to issue a warning about an impending nuclear test. On 3/10/06 the North Korean Foreign Ministry issued a statement where it said,” North Korea would carry out the test in the future… where safety is firmly guaranteed.” On 9/10/06 North Korea carried out it’s first ever test of a nuclear bomb and described it as an historic event.

Both Russia and America confirmed that a nuclear weapon of low yield had been detonated .On 14/10/06 the US led the UN Security Council to impose weapons and financial sanctions on North Korea. Resolution 1718 demands that North Korea eliminate all its nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. The resolution also allows nations to inspect cargo moving in and out of North Korea to check for non-conventional weapons but is not backed by the threat of force. It also calls for Pyongyang to return "without precondition" to stalled six-nation talks on its nuclear programme.

So the tightening of North Korea’s economic activities abroad together with the absence of a firm pledge by the US not to attack North Korea, contributed to Pyongyang’s decision to test a nuclear weapon. The low grade yield of the weapon also keeps America and the West guessing as to what is real strength of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and makes it next to impossible for America to take any offensive action.

However, North Korea’s willingness to return to the multilateral talks has more to do with easing financial sanctions then giving up nuclear weapons. David Asher, the U.S. State Department’s expert on North Korea said, “They’re not coming back because they want to give up nuclear weapons. They are feeling the financial pressure and the cutoff from the international financial system, so they are trying to make nice.” But as long as China and Russia buoyed by America’s failure to control Iraq and Afghanistan continue to support North Korea financially–” Kim Jong will certainly survive.

As for America, the nuclear test by North Korea is indicative of the Bush administration’s total failure to control Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. In short, like with Iraq, the Bush administration has run out of viable options to deal with North Korea. Furthermore, it also makes a mockery of Bush’s efforts to paint Iran as the number one threat to world security, while North Korea continues to prove it has the ability to hurt the US. Apart from conducting further talks there is little the US can do right now.