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North Korea Flexes Its Muscles

Prepared by: Esther Pan
Updated: June 20, 2006

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After years of inconclusive meetings on North Korea's nuclear program, Pyongyang appears to be readying a bold move. North Korea is reportedly moving closer to testing a long-range ballistic missile (NYT). As signs of preparation—including fueling of intercontinental ballistic missiles—seemed to point to a possible launch, Pyongyang told its citizens to wait by their radios for news (globalsecurity.org). The move would end an eight-year pause in such tests and comes despite strong Japanese and U.S. warnings (VOA). Condoleezza Rice warned North Korea that any such test would be considered "a provocative act" (AP). China and Russia are also urging Pyongyang to return to negotiations, which led last fall to a declaration committing to the "verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula." South Korea has also joined the chorus warning Pyongyang against a missile test (LAT). But the traditionally close relationship between Seoul and Washington is growing chillier over their differing views on how to treat North Korea (Newsweek). South Korea favors engagement and eventual reunification, while the U.S. stresses disarmament.

Some suggest concern over the potential missile test may be misplaced. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists offers a detailed look at North Korea's nuclear capabilities in 2005, noting that while it is widely known Pyongyang has a nuclear program, Kim Jung-Il's regime has never conducted a nuclear test or conclusively demonstrated it has operational nuclear warheads. Contributors to the blog Defensetech.org note U.S. and other intelligence sources cannot confirm that missiles are actually being fueled. And Brookings visiting scholar Alexander Vorontsov analyzes Kim's "military-first" policy, saying it may be oriented more at maintaining domestic order than threatening neighbors. Such a policy could be seen in a positive light, Vorontsov writes, when compared with South Korea's transformation, which began with military rule.

Other countries seem to be losing patience with Kim. On June 16, Japan's parliament passed a law calling for tough sanctions against Pyongyang if it doesn't improve its human-rights record (Asia Times). Japan could prevent North Korean ships from docking at Japanese ports and block cash transfers to North Korea without explicit UN authority.

One exception to the global trend is China: Daniel Sneider of the San Jose Mercury News writes Pyongyang still has a strong ally in Beijing, whose growing closeness to Kim's regime is causing concern in both Seoul and Washington. China is also a key trading partner for North Korea, which is expanding its markets in an ongoing capitalist experiment described in this Backgrounder.

Asia scholar David Kang argues in the Washington Post that, to make progress, the United States should broaden its focus on North Korea from the nuclear issue to the wider theme of north-south unification. Graham Allison tells CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman that the Bush administration's North Korea policy of "threaten and neglect" has been "an abject failure." James Goodby of the Brookings Institution suggests encouraging a "peace regime" involving people-to-people contact and state-to-state relationships that promote cooperation. A compilation by Stanford's Asian-Pacific Research Center, North Korea: 2005 and Beyond, features several authors who write that economic progress, commerce, and integration may be the strongest forces for change on the Korean peninsula. And Randall Ireson, who leads the Quaker agriculture development program in North Korea, offers a blueprint for how to bring North Korean agriculture to the point that it could once again feed its people.

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