After the disconcerting spectacle of Tony Snow’s charm offensive directed at Kim Jung Il, it’s almost a relief to see the United States back to its usual business of hyping the crisis, antagonizing Kim Jung Il, and irritating our diplomatic partners.
On the way to Moscow, Condoleezza Rice insisted that Chinese president Hu Jintao’s envoy to Kim Jung Il, Tang Jiaxuan, had not told her anything about any apology or promise not to detonate another nuclear device by Kim Jung Il and asserted that the crisis was alive and well:
The secretary of state was in Beijing on Friday, but she said the Chinese made no mention of Mr Kim agreeing to halt nuclear tests, despite giving her a "thorough" briefing on Mr Tang's visit to Pyongyang.
"I don't know whether or not Kim Jong-il said any such thing," Ms Rice told journalists accompanying her on a flight from Beijing to Moscow.
"Tang did not tell me that Kim Jong-il either apologised for the test or said that he would not ever test again," Ms Rice added.
"The North Koreans, I think, would like to see an escalation of the tension."
Maybe it’s true.
Not the part about the North Koreans wanting to escalate the tension.
But the part about how she doesn’t know what Kim Jung Il said.
Because it seems Tang didn’t tell her.
What Tang did say to Secretary Rice was:
"Fortunately my visit to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) this time has not been in vain," Tang told Rice at the start of their meeting.
“Not in vain” certainly indicates that China doesn’t expect to be blindsided by a new North Korean test for the time being.
Neither do the Japanese, is the impression that can be gathered from Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso:
Though it is not confirmed, we have obtained information that... the country won't conduct a second nuclear test.
Despite their inexplicable reticence in discussions with Miss Rice, it would seem the Chinese decided to leak the news of Kim Jung Il’s climbdown to all and sundry in the South Korean and Japanese media:
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il told Chinese special envoy Tang Jiaxuan on Thursday his country has no plans to conduct an additional nuclear test, a diplomatic source said.
All in all, I think Secretary of State Rice is engaged an uphill battle to keep the Korean crisis on the boil—and keep the United States in the lead role in framing the debate and directing the international response.
Absent a credible, deliverable nuclear threat from Kim Jung Il, the U.S. has emphasized a crisis narrative based on the dangers of North Korean proliferation of its small stocks of fissile material and unproven technology.
President Bush led the charge, assisted by that loyal and indefatigable factotum, the unnamed official:
"I don't think you'll find guys saying they've got devices ready to sell off the shelf," said a U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the subject. "I think the concern would be about components and raw material."
In reporting this development, the LA Times adopted a skeptical tone:
Recent sanctions imposed by the United Nations bar North Korea from spreading nuclear material or technology. And most experts said the country would probably refrain from doing so. "It's still a low-probability worry," said Michael Levi, a nuclear weapons expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, "but it's the high consequences that make people concerned."
The U.S. government has a documented history of crying wolf on this issue.
Last year the Washington Post reported on a previous U.S. attempt to depict North Korea’s proliferation potential as an immediate security crisis.
The title pretty much says it all:
U.S. Misled Allies About Nuclear Export
In an effort to increase pressure on North Korea, the Bush administration told its Asian allies in briefings earlier this year that Pyongyang had exported nuclear material to Libya. That was a significant new charge, the first allegation that North Korea was helping to create a new nuclear weapons state.
But that is not what U.S. intelligence reported, according to two officials with detailed knowledge of the transaction. North Korea, according to the intelligence, had supplied uranium hexafluoride -- which can be enriched to weapons-grade uranium -- to Pakistan. It was Pakistan, a key U.S. ally with its own nuclear arsenal, that sold the material to Libya. The U.S. government had no evidence, the officials said, that North Korea knew of the second transaction.
…a North Korea-Pakistan transfer would not have been news to the U.S. allies, which have known of such transfers for years and viewed them as a business matter between sovereign states.
The Bush administration's approach, intended to isolate North Korea, instead left allies increasingly doubtful as they began to learn that the briefings omitted essential details about the transaction, U.S. officials and foreign diplomats said in interviews.
The United States briefed allies on North Korea in late January and early February [2005—ed.]. Shortly afterward, administration officials, speaking to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, said North Korea had sold uranium hexafluoride to Libya. The officials said the briefing was arranged to share the information with China, South Korea and Japan ahead of a new round of hoped-for negotiations on North Korea's nuclear program.
But in recent days, two other U.S. officials said the briefings were hastily arranged after China and South Korea indicated they were considering bolting from six-party talks on North Korea.
Not good. Not good for American credibility, or for U.S. pretensions to leadership on North Asian security matters.
Today, there does not appear to be any international support for U.S. declaration of a North Korean proliferation crisis, with its implication of the need for interdiction, forcible abrogation of North Korean sovereignty in order to dismantle its nuclear capability, an intrusive inspection regime, and all the other aggravation involved in designating the DPRK a rogue state that threatens the survival of the planet—not least of which is the license it give to the United States to organize a pre-emptive initiative with its allies outside the U.N. and multilateral system (I will discuss the Proliferation Security Initiative—Washington’s custom-built mechanism for unilaterally exerting military force under this policy—in a separate post).
The Russians, according to the Telegraph, were pretty blunt:
The talks were held behind closed doors, but [Russian Foreign Minister] Mr Lavrov made the Kremlin's view plain in an interview with the Kuwaiti news agency Kuna, published hours before Miss Rice landed in Moscow at the end of a four-nation tour.
Accusing Washington of being as intransigent as Pyongyang, Mr Lavrov said: "Both sides need to show flexibility." He added that he was disappointed with the international response to the October 9 test, saying: "Everyone- should demonstrate realism and avoid extreme, uncompromising positions."
The BBC, under the skeptical heading International threat?, picked up the theme.
Ms. Rice is seeking to bolster international support for enforcing UN sanctions imposed after the communist state's 9 October nuclear test.
The Russians condemned the test when it happened, and the Kremlin has made it clear that it does not welcome a nuclear-armed North Korea, but the BBC's James Rodgers in Moscow says there is little sense in the Russian capital that the world faces a clear and immediate threat.
The Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, has said that the sanctions against Pyongyang should be lifted if it returns to the negotiating table.
So Secretary Rice has got her work cut out for her in convincing the participants in the six party talks that this is an escalating crisis that justifies heightened hand-wringing, frantic shuttling, anxious meetings, more sanctions, and the threat of escalation instead of concessions, negotiations, opportunistic muddling along and maybe, just maybe, a specific indication from the United States as to what we hope to get out of all of this.
One assumes that Secretary Rice is in it for more than the psychic benefits of being able to stride purposefully through hallways, jet to exotic capitals, and engage in grip-and-grin sessions with world leaders.
A logical assumption is that the U.S. wants to use North Korea as a precedent for confronting Iran—one that will evade the need to work through the UN as the primary multilateral mechanism.
For Washington, the teachable moment here is that a group of powers clubbed together, secretly decided on a particular strategy for North Korea, and then imposed it, not through the U.N., but by using the UNSC sanctions as only one of several coordinated policy instruments.
This is apparently a precedent that Secretary Rice is eager to apply:
"The greatest challenge to the nonproliferation regime comes from countries that violate their pledges to respect the Nonproliferation Treaty. The North Korean regime is one such case, but also so is Iran. The Iranian government is watching, and it can now see that the international community will respond to threats from nuclear proliferation. I expect the Security Council to begin work this week on an Iran sanctions resolution so the Iranian government should consider the course that it is on, which could lead simply to further isolation."
Secretary of State Rice says that there is now a coalition of countries working together "for a change in Iranian behavior concerning their nuclear program." It is widely understood that "Iran is the problem," says Ms. Rice. "The president [George W. Bush] has put together these coalitions. It's the right way to go about this activity, and it is the only way to use a diplomatic solution to resolve these cases."
However, the general international apathy for escalating the North Korean problem into a crisis does not bode well for America’s efforts to perform some miraculous diplomatic jiu jitsu to convert modulated support for containing Pyongyang into firebreathing ardor for confronting Teheran.
And there will probably be active opposition to any diplomatic initiatives that might give President Bush apparent sanction to unleash another "coalition of the willing" on the Middle East.
The initiative on North Korean succeeded precisely because China excluded the U.S. from a leadership role and refused to allow the United States to escalate tensions and define the North Korean situation as a grave crisis that justified interdiction or pre-emptive action by a group of concerned states outside of the explicit sanction of the U.N.
No support appears to exist for any claims by the U.S. that the UNSC resolution represented approval or acquiescence by the concerned powers or the UN to the application of coercive inspections, let alone military force, by America and its allies.
That, despite Secretary Rice’s efforts, is the pattern that will probably reassert itself vis a vis Iran. Whether the United States chooses to acknowledge and heed this reality is, of course, another matter entirely.