No war, no talks, more pressure

In its initial reaction to Monday’s North Korean nuclear test, the Bush administration indicated it will seek the strongest possible sanctions against Pyongyang at the UN Security Council but was not considering taking military action on its own, at least for now. At the same time, independent analysts said the test will almost certainly strengthen administration hawks, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, who have strongly opposed bilateral talks with North Korea in favour of a strategy of escalating unilateral and international pressure designed to weaken and ultimately bring down the regime.

“Cheney and his supporters see negotiating with North Korea as the worst idea possible, because any meaningful discussion with the regime would extend its lifespan,” said John Feffer, a Korea specialist with Foreign Policy in Focus, a progressive think-tank here. “With this test, they can now argue that North Korea has gone past the point of no return, and the only ethical option is to squeeze it until it collapses,” he added.

Feffer and a number of other analysts, however, believe that such an approach remains unrealistic, particularly because China and South Korea, while willing to impose stronger sanctions than they have considered in the past, will oppose measures that would significantly

enhance the possibility of regime collapse.

“The question is really whether the Bush administration will want to persist in what has been a failed approach or will combine inevitable sanctions with the possibility of moving back to the negotiating table,” said Alan Romberg, a Korea specialist at the Henry L Stimson Centre here.

Given the administration’s past rejection of Chinese and South Korean appeals to engage Pyongyang, however, Romberg said he was not optimistic. Most analysts here believe that Washington will gain support for sanctions, but not so far-reaching as it would like, particularly given the opposition by China, which denounced North Korea’s test in unusually harsh terms, to measures that it thought would cause Pyongyang’s downfall. “There will be sanctions, but the question is how serious they will be,” said Scott Bruce, an expert at the California-based Nautilus Institute.

“North Korea’s situation is indeed threatening, but there’s not a lot the US and other countries can do without courting the destruction of the regime, which no one, except the US and maybe Japan, wants,” according to Don Oberdorfer, chairman of the US Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

“China is going to want to express its anger very clearly, but it will not want to cut off the diplomatic process, which represents, in most people’s view, the only way forward, and South Korea will adopt a similar position,” according to Romberg. “They will take harsher action than they have to date, but they will also want to preserve the diplomatic option.”

“A key point is whether North Korea will now feel it has demonstrated enough strength to move back to the negotiating table even while the United States financial sanctions remain in place. That should not be ruled out, and, if North Korea is really prepared to sit down even in this new situation that has emerged and negotiate seriously on denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula... there is some prospect for getting unstuck.” — IPS