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WHY NORTH KOREA IS NOT IRAQ

The American action against Iraq is in dramatic contrast to its cautious reaction on North Korea. Why is George W. Bush so obsessed with disarming only Saddam Hussein, ask his critics, when the government of Kim Jong Il has openly said it will resume its nuclear programme'

On Christmas eve, the defence secretary of the United States of America, Donald Rumsfeld, warned North Korea to desist from its nuclear plans, pointing out that the US was capable of tackling both it and Iraq at the same time, by force if needed. But the remark was made to reporters days after Pyongyang’s announcement. Nor did it mesh with Bush’s own more measured comments. Speaking to television on December 13, Bush made clear that he was not looking for a showdown with North Korea. He wanted to keep peace in the peninsula through “diplomatic pressure” and alliance.

This guarded approach to Pyongyang was also visible in the earlier interception and subsequent release of a North Korean consignment of Scud missiles bound for Yemen. The pattern of response has been one of prudence, and this despite Pyongyang’s sharp retaliatory rhetoric and formal intimation to the International Atomic Energy Agency to remove its caps.

Change of outlook

What accounts for the low-key Western response' Much of the answer lies within that remote country and its reclusive regime as viewed by the West. In striking contrast to vibrant South Korea, the situation in the North is described as “accelerating systemic decline coupled with narrowing strategic options for the leadership” in which the political clout of the military is increasing.

A major feature is economic decay. Till 30 years ago the North’s economy, with its greater natural resources and swifter post-war reconstruction, was performing better that of South Korea. But in the last decade it has undergone a downturn. This has been compounded by floods, acute food and energy shortages, breakdown in the ration system, and stagnation of most key industries except defence. Ironically, North Korea’s economic decline has coincided with the political rise of the younger Kim. The death of his father, former President Kim Il Sung, in 1994 had provided an opportunity to shift from the latter’s Juche ideology towards economic liberalization. But this could have affected the son’s political legitimacy, apart from meeting opposition from the armed forces. The outcome has been even more reliance on the country’s existing assets to safeguard the regime.

Larger interests

The sale of Scuds to Yemen is no surprise in this background. Nor is cooperation with Pakistan, involving exchange of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology. Outside attempts to prevent such transactions could result in threats to resume nuclear production as in the present instance. More important, moves to divert attention from internal problems could possibly become a dangerous temptation.

A senior Northern party funtionary, who defected to the South some years ago, alleged that the North was developing nuclear weapons for attacking the South. Discounting the obvious compulsions in such allegations, Korea watchers nevertheless do not preclude the possibility of actions like border incursions, infiltration and sabotage attempts, specially if military influence further increases in the North.

Turmoil within and around the North would obviously concern South Korea, as also its allies, the US and Japan. It would be no less so to China and Russia who have common borders with the country. But none can be sure of the extent to which the others will go to protect their interests.

Many think that given the right incentives the North would gradually change and enter the mainstream of international cooperation. But recent developments belie this line of thought. The alternative is to look for fresh policies, which is still being cautiously probed. Hence the careful reactions and calls for restraint.

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