U.S. Says Nondiplomatic Approach to North Korea Possible
Monday, June 1, 2009
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Saturday opened the possibility of pursuing alternate strategies if diplomacy continues to fail to curb North Korea's nuclear program, Reuters reported (see GSN, May 29).
Meeting in Singapore with the top defense officials from Japan and South Korea, Gates said Washington and its allies could respond to Pyongyang's defiance of international calls for nuclear disarmament by ramping up defenses in the region.
"Six-party talks are the preferred course of diplomacy," said Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell. "But given that the six-party talks haven't produced the results we're looking for, Gates also made the point that while we pursue that course, we have to look at other options ... to improve out defenses, if that becomes necessary.
The secretary made these comments amid reports that North Korea was preparing to test another long-range ballistic missile that could potentially reach Alaska, U.S. bases in the South Pacific and Washington's allies along the Pacific Rim (see related GSN story, today).
"There are two paths we can take against North Korea," Gates told Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada, according to a Japanese government source. "One is the diplomatic effort through six-party talks or the United Nations. The other is for Japan, the U.S., and South Korea to strengthen antinuclear proliferation measures. Specifically, that could mean missile defense and other defensive moves against North Korea" (Bill Tarrant, Reuters I, May 31).
"Our goal is complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and we will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state," Gates said during the security forum in Singapore.
He added that North Korea would be held "fully accountable" for exporting any nuclear weapons or materials to other states or "nonstate entities" -- a move Gates said would represent a "grave threat to the United States and our allies" (Roberto Coloma, Agence France-Presse I/Yahoo News, May 30).
At the conference, Gates called on U.S. allies to support strong sanctions against North Korea in order to make sure they work, the Associated Press reported.
Past attempts to isolate the Stalinist regime through economic penalties suffered from poor enforcement and failed to dissuade the North from pursuing nuclear arms.
"They create a crisis and the rest of us pay the price to the return to the status quo ante," Gates said. "As the expression goes in the U.S., I'm tired of buying the same horse twice."
He added "There are other ways perhaps to get the North Koreans to change their approach. I think this notion that we buy our way back to the status quo ante is an approach that I personally at least think we ought to think very hard about" (Jakes/Joshi, Associated Press/Houston Chronicle, May 30).
Still, Gates said the United States remains "committed" to the six-party talks aimed at persuading Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure, the New York Times reported. The talks -- involving China, Japan, Russia, the United States and both Koreas -- stalled late last year and seemingly collapsed entirely following international condemnation of North Korea's rocket test on April 5.
Sanctions levied against Pyongyang after its first nuclear test in 2006 "clearly have not had the impact in North Korea that any of us have wanted," Gates said. "That doesn't mean they're useless, by any means, and we are still committed to the six-party talks" (Bumiller/Choe, New York Times, May 30).
While the United States is keeping nondiplomatic measures open as a possibility, it plans to continue trying to use diplomacy to curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions, Reuters reported.
"I think it's important for us to take it a step at a time and I'd rather not presume that we will not be successful in gaining a broad agreement on the way forward," Gates said. "I think we ought to wait and see how those conversations go from here diplomatically and I think I'd rather not speculate on what we might do after that" (Manny Mogato, Reuters II, June 1).
Gates spent the Singapore conference pushing for unity on a tough, unified response to last week's nuclear test -- something that has been elusive in the past, the Wall Street Journal reported.
"The secretary made it clear and the administration's goal is to have the five nations work together," said a senior Defense Department official. "What the secretary pointed out is we certainly have to think about what happens if that fails, and we have to start planning and taking some actions of our own and with our allies to look at defenses" (Peter Spiegel, Wall Street Journal, June 1).
Observers expect that the greatest hurdle to a unified response would be China and Russia, which historically have been reluctant to back measures that could destabilize their mercurial neighbor, the Washington Times reported.
"There is agreement that something more must be done, but I think Russia and China will proceed more cautiously that the U.S. would like to see," said former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who attended the Singapore conference. "I think they are prepared to adopt additional measures, but theirs is a more graduated approach."
In meetings last week, China and Russia joined the United States, United Kingdom, France, Japan, and Sorth Korea in talks about possible sanctions against North Korea. They discussed expanding existing arms embargoes, freezing the assets of individuals within the North Korean government, and further isolating Pyongyang from the benefits of global finance. Without cooperation from China and Russia, these measures would be difficult to enforce.
"Whenever the North Koreans see a red line, they like to cross it, so I think there will be more ambiguity," Cohen said. "It's much more important that they don't understand exactly where the lines are going to be in terms of what actually happens -- whether it's on the financial side, shutting down the flow of credit going into North Korea, whether it's putting more pressure on countries doing trade with the North Koreans" (Nicholas Kralev, Washington Times, June 1).
Meanwhile, scientists have not yet confirmed that the event that touched off the latest crisis was a fully successful nuclear blast, Agence France-Presse reported.
While seismic stations as far away as Texas registered a large underground blast originating in North Korea on May 25 and Pyongyang declared it had tested a nuclear weapon, scientists have not yet been able to tell whether it was a bona fide atomic explosion, a dud akin to the regime's 2006 blast, or simply a large conventional bomb designed to mislead the world as to the North's nuclear capability.
The true determinant would be the presence of radioactive particles or rare gases in the air -- which scientists will only be able to detect once the prevailing winds carry them to monitoring stations.
"It would take at least two days for closest stations to be reached, and the farther we go, the more time it takes," said Tibor Toth, head of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (Agence France-Presse II/Spacewar.com, June 1).