TCS Daily

They've Got Nukes. So Is the Proliferation Security Initiative Working?

By Bryan Preston - February 14, 2005 12:00 AM

In mid-2002 the Bush administration embarked on a plan to bottle up North Korea's efforts to build a nuclear weapon, hoping to choke its ability to export nukes and other dangerous technologies to anyone willing to pay. Called the Proliferation Security Initiative, this effort has mostly flown under the radar of both the media and the voting public. Few know of its existence or purpose, though President Bush has mentioned it in numerous speeches including his two most recent State of the Union addresses. PSI is in fact an alliance that consists of intelligence sharing and shipping interdiction, and includes most of the world's great powers such as the United States, Russia, Japan, Great Britain, France and Australia. Its prime goal is to keep North Korea's proliferation efforts in check.

Last week's announcement from Pyongyang that North Korea has constructed a nuclear weapon might be seen as evidence that the Bush strategy has not worked. The administration's political opponents will no doubt use the announcement as evidence that they have been right and therefore the Bush approach has been wrong.

It is useful to understand at this point just what the administration's critics, who include almost all Democrats and left-leaning pundits, have said should be done about North Korea. Most of them do not know much about the PSI, or at least never acknowledge its existence in any of their public statements or writings, so their information may not be complete. Most do cite one or two things that they would do differently from the administration if they had the responsibility of dealing with North Korea's mercurial Stalinist.

First, they would return to the deal brokered by former President Jimmy Carter on behalf of the Clinton administration in 1994. That deal promised North Korea fuel, food and several nuclear reactors in exchange for its promise to halt its nuclear weapons programs and submit to international verification through inspection. The so-called Agreed Framework fell apart no later than 2000, with Pyongyang deciding to re-start its weapons programs in secret, which if nothing else demonstrates that promises mean little to the North Korean regime. Why the Bush administration's critics think a repeat of that deal would turn out any differently now is a bit of a mystery.

The second thing the Bush administration's critics say should be done is that the US should hold bilateral meetings with North Korea, which the administration has refused to do. The administration instead sees the problem as primarily one of South Korean, Japanese, Russian and Chinese concern and thus insists that those states be included in any talks. The Chinese in particular hold several strategic keys in dealing with North Korea, including border security and fuel and food agreements without which the North Korean economy would collapse. Japanese citizens have been abducted and forced into working for the North Korean regime for decades, and Japan itself is threatened by North Korea's nuclear ambitions and missile technology, so it deserves a place at the table. South Korea has lived with the threat of a re-ignited Korean War for decades, and therefore has the most to gain or lose. Russia's long-standing relationship with North Korea can also serve as a wedge, so it deserves a presence in discussions. And it is curious that the same people who criticize the administration for being too unilateral in Iraq criticize it now for being too multilateral in North Korea.

Nevertheless, North Korea now admits that it has produced nuclear weapons. Its apparent goal is to increase its stature in the eyes of the world and force the United States to acquiesce to, at a minimum, its wish to hold bilateral discussions. Blackmail in some form or another is also a possibility. But is this declaration a confirmation that the Bush strategy is a failure, or that it is working?

Stories trickling out of North Korea in recent months suggest that it may be in a pre-revolutionary state. Images of dictator Kim Jong-Il have either been removed from public display or have been defaced with anti-regime graffiti. The title "Dear Leader" has been dropped from stories about him, indicating a loss of prestige within the ruling elite. Word of defections, of refugees slipping into China and South Korea, and even of an "underground railroad" that is run by Christians and facilitates escape from the Stalinist state have started to surface. And the nation's economy remains in the grip of a nasty depression that has lasted for the better part of a decade. That famine has been so severe that North Koreans who have managed to escape into South Korea have been found to be about 20% smaller than their cousins.

Further, in December 2004 South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that Kim Jong-Nam, son and heir to Kim Jong-Il, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in Europe last November. Add to that recent Chinese moves to distance itself from Pyongyang's more extreme rhetoric while readying troops along the Sino-North Korean border to deal with an expected influx of refugees should the Kim government fall, and you may have a regime in crisis sparked in part by the Bush administration's drive to put North Korea in a box and keep it there via the PSI. In that context, North Korea's nuclear declaration can be read as aimed not so much at the United States as at its own domestic threats, in an attempt to stifle critics or close off internal debate. It may indicate that a power struggle is underway, either to oust Kim Jong-Il or to establish succession after his death. And if that is the case, then the Proliferation Security Initiative is doing its job and the Bush strategy is working.

How might the PSI have played a role in this? In two ways: international diplomatic isolation of North Korea, and economics. The PSI is very much a team effort, and one that is led by the United States. Its continued existence puts more than a dozen major states on America's side, explicitly, in dealing with Pyongyang's nuclear drive. Kim knows that unlike Saddam Hussein, he will not have a France to count on to defend him from us since the French are charter PSI members, and Russia's decision to join up in 2004 further isolated North Korea from the international community. It was the old Soviet Union, after all, that established the Kim regime in the first place. The defection of Russia to the American side in the PSI is probably the largest symbolic diplomatic defeat for Kim since he took power. In terms of economics, North Korea has very few exports of interest to anyone, but it does have significant weapons expertise, especially in missile technology and weapons of mass destruction, and has sold such technology to anyone willing to pay hard currency in the past. The PSI has reduced that revenue stream by interdicting ships suspected of smuggling weapons technology out of North Korea.

Diplomatically isolated and economically bankrupt, North Korea may now be ripe for revolution or at least collapse. If North Korea falls, that would leave just one member of the "axis of evil" standing, and the Bush administration already has a smaller-scale PSI called Caspian Guard in the works to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Bryan Preston is a writer and television producer. He is also the author of Junkyardblog.



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