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Defusing the Korean time bomb

By Gary Brown - posted Monday, 26 September 2005

The new agreement about the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea’s (DPRK - North Korea) nuclear program is most welcome. This agreement is the result of intensive and difficult six-party negotiations between China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the United States. In one form or another, with numerous interruptions, false dawns and near-crises along the way, negotiations with Pyongyang have taken well over a decade.

In return for American and South Korean assurances that neither harbours aggressive intentions towards the DPRK, that neither has any nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, and for undertakings to supply the DPRK with desperately needed power, Pyongyang has agreed to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs”. As an additional quid pro quo, the DPRK’s right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy has been recognised with “respect” and an undertaking to discuss the provision of a light water reactor at “an appropriate time”.

It has also been agreed that the DPRK and Japan should seek to normalise relations. Significantly, this includes a reference to the settlement of “unfortunate” past issues and current issues of concern. (I have written before in On Line Opinion on Japan’s reluctance to address its history of World War II atrocities). Finally, it has been agreed that the belligerents in the Korean War should finally negotiate for a permanent peace regime on the peninsula.


The agreement is to be implemented on the basis of “commitment for commitment, action for action”.

The authoritarian regime in Pyongyang has been in serious difficulty for at least the last decade. The failure of its neo-Stalinist command economy has made it an international food aid beggar, while its fear of collapse has caused it to adopt a provocative and difficult international posture. The George W. Bush US, for its part, has seemed at times determined to back Pyongyang into a corner. But this agreement, if honoured in spirit as well as letter by all parties - a big “if”, given the history of the region - may at last defuse the Korean time bomb.

Paradoxically, however, it may actually ramp up the intensity of the disputation surrounding Iran’s (allegedly civilian) nuclear endeavours. It would be a mistake to assume that the Iranian nuclear program is a creature of that country’s hardliners, now with complete political power following an election of dubious credibility earlier this year. On the contrary, there appears to be wide support in Iran for a nuclear program, and even for nuclear weapons. To quote from a Washington Post story on March 11, 2003:

Leading theoreticians at opposite poles find common ground articulating a national ambition that diplomats warn could hold the seeds of a crisis if it is realised.

"Are nuclear weapons bad?" asked Amir Mohebian, an unofficial adviser to Iran's supreme leader, the conservative Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "Why don't you make the same protest against Israel?"

"It's basically a matter of equilibrium," said Mostafa Tajzadeh, a leading theorist in the reform movement that controls [2003] Iran's parliament. “On the one hand Israel says, ‘If I don't have it, I don't have security’. And we say, ‘As long as Israel has it, we don't have security’.”


"We believe the way to deal with Israel's expansionism is to democratise the region," Tajzadeh said. "But while things are the way they are, public opinion in Muslim countries, and in Iran, is not going to be against having nuclear weapons."

What this means is that Iran - which, unlike the DPRK, is no economic basket case - is not easily going to give up its nuclear ambitions. Clearly, energy-rich Iran does not need nuclear power for civilian energy supply; its claims to the contrary are a smokescreen. It desires nuclear weapons because it feels insecure and it knows that nuclear weapons, once it has them in deliverable form, can enhance its security.

Iran’s feelings of insecurity have escalated in recent years. There have been American troops across its eastern border with Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Aware of the risks, Iran has been punctilious in its relations across that border. Anxious not to be tarred with the Al-Qaida brush, it also handed 16 suspected Al-Qaida members to the Saudis in August 2002.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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