International reaction to North Korea's nuclear tests

Friday, May 29, 2009 | 10:36 a.m. CDT; updated 1:57 p.m. CDT, Friday, May 29, 2009

Byron Scott, professor emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: A very hot story, and in a way, a chronic story, has to do with the explosion of a nuclear device by North Korea on Memorial Day.  This shadowy nation is arguably the most dysfunctional member of the “nuclear family.” Here, we’re not talking sociology or psychology; we’re talking about the so-called family of nuclear weapons holders. What is happening in terms of the United Nations’ reaction to the North Korean crisis?

Julia Grønnevet, U.N. reporter, Asahi Shimbun, New York:  This test came as a big surprise to all of the reporters here at the U.N. This is the Japanese media’s worst nightmare. An emergency Security Council meeting was scheduled and the council immediately issued a press statement strongly condemning the nuclear test. They began work on a resolution Monday, but they are still working on it.

Scott: What is the situation in South Korea?

Yoo Jee-ho, reporter, JoongAng Daily, Seoul, South Korea: Watch conditions have been moved up. It is issued by the combined forces of South Korea and the U.S. About 20,000 U.S. troops are stationed here across the nation. Basically, this level means the forces from South Korea and the U.S. relinquish their efforts to collect intelligence data from North Korea to intensified reconnaissance efforts. This is done to guard against a military strike that North Korea declared they would do in response to actions South Korea took after the weapons were dispatched.

Scott: North Korea conducted its first underground nuclear test in October 2006. Since then, the “six-party talks” have attempted to negotiate with North Korea. What is happening in Washington as a result of these tests?

Warren Strobel, senior foreign affairs correspondent, McClatchy Newspapers, Washington, D.C.: First, the Obama Administration is trying to impose more severe sanctions on North Korea. They want sanctions tough enough that North Korea will take notice and back-off of some of its recent behavior, but not so tough that they would drive North Korea permanently away from the suspended six-party talks; it is a fine line. The key is China — who is North Korea’s closest and only ally. China’s reaction to the second nuclear test was much more swift and severe than the first test. Some senior U.S. officials will be going to Singapore to confer with the Chinese and see what sanctions they are willing to agree on. Less than a year ago, the six-party talks seemed to be going pretty well, and the U.S. dropped North Korea from its list of state terrorism. Then, things fell apart for a number of reasons, including a stroke or health emergency by Kim Jong-Il.

Scott: What has the U.N. done previously on this issue, and what will it do?

Grønnevet: After the first nuclear test, the Security Council passed Resolution 1718. This was an extremely strong resolution calling for sanctions and other measures. But, those sanctions were largely not enforced and were ignored by North Korea. The Security Council is now reconsidering what measures might be more effective. The question is whether to call for enforcing 1718, or to add more sanctions and harder measures in something new.

Scott: What role are China and Russia, two members of the six-party talks, taking?

Grønnevet: Every member of the Security Council holds a rotating presidency each month. This happened on Russia’s watch, so they are taking a chairman role and have to talk to the press. China is in the driver’s seat and controls the whole situation. They walk a fine line, also. If they are too strong, they might lose influence. But, along with Japan and South Korea, they have the most to fear from North Korea.

Scott: What is the mood in South Korea and was this as unexpected as it was in the U.S.?

Yoo: Last month, they said they were conducting a nuclear test, unless the U.N. issued an apology for their sanctions. People here expected the test, but not this early. There is a lot of anger from the Korean public, not only from the test, but because it was conducted on the first day of national mourning over the suicide of former president Roh Moo-hyun.

Scott: Initial estimates are that this nuclear test was the same size as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Also, the missiles tested have gone, literally, over the heads of the Japanese people.

Grønnevet:  Yes, the more belligerent North Korea gets, the more the question arises in Japan whether it is time to acquire nuclear weapons for self defense — something China doesn’t want. This happened on Memorial Day; they previously tested missiles in 2006 on the Fourth of July, so this is also a challenge to the U.S.

Strobel: This is bad timing for the Obama Administration. They had hoped not to ignore the North Korea problem, but to manage it. Their priorities are elsewhere: winding down the war in Iraq; Afghanistan and Pakistan are probably the number one and two priorities; diplomatic engagement with Iran; Mexico is a big issue in terms of drugs and drug violence; and the entire Middle East peace process and outreach to the Muslim world. But, North Korea has a habit of not letting people ignore it. U.S. intelligence believes part of what is going on is that Kim Jong-Il is not well, and the regime is trying to show strength, both externally and internally, as they manage the eventual succession to somebody else, likely in Kim Jong-Il’s family.

Scott: Then there’s the U.S.-led policy to stop and search vessels on the high seas that may be carrying nuclear material. North Korea has said that if South Korea joins this effort it is tantamount to a declaration of war.

Yoo: Right. The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) was created during the Bush Administration in 2003. It is a pact that member countries — currently 95 — would exchange intelligence to curb the trading of weapons of mass destruction by interrupting the shipping of materials in territorial waters. South Korea joined the pact on Tuesday; the next day, North Korea said they were no longer bound by the 1953 Korean War Armistice and the peninsula would soon be returned to a state of war.

Strobel: The U.S. sees the PSI as necessary because the real concern is not that North Korea has a nuclear weapon, but that it might sell the weapons or technology to other countries and further proliferate it.

Scott: Is this part of the U.N. debate?

Grønnevet: Most certainly. China objected to the inspection of cargo in Resolution 1718. This is an element said to be inside the draft resolution, which China is opposed to, but which many Western powers want because it’s effective.

Scott: What do the South Koreans hope might happen from the support of the U.S. and U.N.?

Yoo: South Korea wants a strong resolution, whether a new resolution or a strengthened version of the old resolution. South Korea is not a member of the Security Council, but they attended the meeting with the five premier members, as well as Japan, to discuss measures in response to the nuclear test. South Korea would like to see something that can actually be enforced on North Korea.

Scott:  Is this just another flare-up in what has essentially been a 56-year stalemate, or is this going to turn into something much more serious?

Strobel: We don’t know right now. I have covered this issue for almost 15 years, and flare-ups come along about every six months. One could also easily see a situation in which North Korea tries to up the ante by attacking a South Korean, Japanese or American naval vessel. Or, something could happen along the very tense demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Without anyone really wanting it to, things could get out of control in a violent way.

Grønnevet: It is hard to know whether North Korea is a genuinely irrational actor, or a rational actor appearing to be irrational, to get negotiating done. The Security Council can only react to them as if they are rational.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Geoff George, Brian Jarvis and Sananda Sahoo. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.


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