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North Korea Threat Part Of U.S. Regional Strategy

PINR: North Korea threat part of U.S. regional strategy

By Power and Interest News Report Column

( – North Korea's recent admission of enriching uranium for the purpose of creating a nuclear weapon may be an attempt to foil the U.S. strategy of keeping North Korea a public threat in order to facilitate the creation of the Theater Missile Defense (TMD) system.

North Korea has been yearning to strengthen its economy that has been constrained by international regulations disallowing economic aid from U.S.-controlled multilateral financial institutions. Pyongyang was hoping the 1994 U.S. – D.P.R.K. Agreed Framework would facilitate this. Under the agreement, the United States lowered trade and economic barriers along with guaranteeing that two 1,000 megawatt light water reactors (LWR) would be built by 2003. For the United States, the purpose of the agreement was to decrease the likelihood North Korea would create nuclear weapons with nuclear waste created by its graphite-moderated nuclear reactors. Graphite-moderated nuclear reactors contain a plutonium reactor, which, like enriched uranium, can be used to make nuclear weapons; it is more difficult to convert LWR waste into weapons-grade material.

Contrary to the agreement, construction of the LWRs is far behind schedule. The first reactor is not expected to reach completion until at least 2008 if there are no further delays, even though the 1994 agreement specified that both reactors would be built by 2003. The holdup has prompted North Korea to take bold actions hoping to keep the project on target. The first such action took place in 1998 when North Korea test fired a Taepo-Dong-1 missile which resulted in the project being even further delayed. But this action did not directly violate the agreement. Even as recently as February 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that North Korea has so far "stay[ed] within the agreement." Despite this, the construction of the LWRs remained behind schedule.

In addition, the Bush administration demanded that North Korea open its borders to nuclear inspections. However, the 1994 agreement clearly states that North Korea does not have to allow inspections until a "significant portion of the LWR project is completed," which by consensus has not been done. Therefore, the recent admission by North Korea of enriching uranium may be another attempt to force the United States to hasten the production of the LWRs.

North Korea has further reason to doubt U.S. sincerity in living up to the Agreed Framework. It came as a surprise to North Korea when they were labeled as part of the "axis of evil," a term used to justify possible U.S. military action. By admitting to a nuclear weapons program, North Korea may be hoping to initiate new negotiations. North Korea could possibly offer to give up their bomb program if the U.S. lives up to its commitments of normalizing ties, releasing aid, and allowing North Korea access to international financial institutions.

The Bush administration may not be interested in removing North Korea from the threat list. A perceived North Korean threat is necessary to justify building the Theater Missile Defense (TMD) system, intended to counter China's growing military and political power. With China's economy growing at seven percent, it is only a matter of time before it dwarfs Japan in power and strategic influence. This worries sectors of Japan's government, especially the military establishment, and also concerns the Bush administration, who do not want to see U.S. regional power and economic interests threatened by China. Since neither the U.S. nor Japan are willing to admit to building the new missile system to counteract a Beijing threat, North Korea is currently being used as the primary reason for creating the TMD in Japan.

In addition to the TMD, the U.S. is also discussing the implementation of the Navy Theater Wide Defense (NTWD) system that could be installed on U.S. and Japanese Aegis warships. These mobile missile defense systems could severely weaken China's military threat and reduce Beijing's political clout. China is concerned that its ballistic missiles, pointed at Taipei to prevent their independence, could be rendered ineffective by a NTWD protecting Taiwan. While official recognition of China's threat to the U.S. would cause unwanted political ramifications, the touting of North Korea as a public threat provides a convenient justification for the development of both these new missile defense systems.

China is warily monitoring North Korea and U.S. relations. China is considered North Korea's closest ally, largely because China is protecting its southern border from unwanted influence. If North Korea should become politically unstable, it could prompt U.S. forces to move north from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) -- where 37,000 U.S. troops help separate North and South Korea -- to fill any power vacuum created by a government breakdown. Such a move would cause instant conflict with China; therefore, China has both a vested military and political interest in maintaining their support of North Korea.

Besides North Korea and China, resistance to this U.S. strategy is coming from South Korea, which hopes to create stronger ties with North Korea in preparation for future reunification. The prospect of worsening relations with Pyongyang is not only scorned in Seoul, but is also feared.

North Korea has the fourth largest military in the world with over 1.2 million armed personnel compared with only 650,000 in South Korea. Military spending stands at 20-25 percent of the North's GNP. Pyongyang has the second-largest special operations force in the world, including 55,000 troops trained to operate behind enemy lines in case of warfare.

Because these troops are massed on the DMZ, the South Korean capital of Seoul would probably be decimated in any major conflict. This danger, and the high cost of war, explains South Korea's open-door policy towards the North, typified by South Korean Prime Minister Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy. These divergent policies have created a political rift between South Korea and the United States.

The upcoming elections in South Korea may affect this conflict, especially if the less conciliatory Lee Hoi-chang is elected and takes a harder stance on North Korea. However, as mentioned above, it will be difficult for any South Korean government to be overly bold due to the tension along the DMZ.

The real variable is Japan. The U.S. has been counting on Japan's military establishment for support of the missile defense projects. The Koizumi government has been struggling to moderate between its military establishment -- closely linked to the United States -- and its regional allies such as South Korea, who want a less-hostile approach toward Pyongyang. Japan has been forced to reassess its diverging alliances; however, it is doubtful that it will risk straining ties with its largest export market, the United States.

Constrained by these alliance pressures, it is unlikely that the U.S. will risk direct military confrontation with North Korea. At the same time, Washington, keeping a wary eye on growing Chinese military and political influence, also considers it prudent to maintain North Korea as a perceived threat -- at least until the new Theater Missile Defense and Navy Theater Wide Defense systems are in place to help maintain the balance of regional power in favor of U.S. interests.


- Erich Marquardt drafted this report; Matthew Riemer, Gillian Norman contributed.

[The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an analysis-based publication that seeks to, as objectively as possible, provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. PINR seeks to inform rather than persuade. This report may be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast provided that any such reproduction identifies the original source, All comments should be directed to]

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