| Ander Nieuws week 28 / nieuwe oorlog 2006 |
July 5 2006
By Guy Dinmore and Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington
President George W. Bush passed out coffee at a Dunkin Donuts outlet in Virginia on Wednesday as his administration struggled to preserve an image of business as usual despite North Korea's efforts to raise the crisis over its nuclear weapons programme to a new level.
While US officials have used the word "crisis" to describe the confrontation over the Iranian nuclear programme - which is considered years behind that in North Korea - they have carefully steered away from describing the standoff with North Korea in such terms since Pyongyang evicted international inspectors from its nuclear facilities in late 2002 and then quit the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
The strongest language from an administration official in response to the firing of seven missiles came when Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, described the act as "provocation". Despite labelling North Korea as part of the "axis of evil", Mr Bush said only that Pyongyang had further isolated itself in the world.
When asked about previous comments by an administration official that the US was keeping all options on the table for dealing with North Korea, Tony Snow, White House press secretary said: "There are attempts to try to describe this almost in breathless World War III terms."
"This is not such a situation. This is a situation in which people are working with a regime in North Korea, trying to reason with a dictator, to step back from provocative activities."
Michael Green, Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the former top White House Asia official until January, said the US was engaging in a "balancing act" by reassuring Japan that Washington took the missile launches seriously while avoiding creating a sense of crisis.
"North Korea would very much like this to be a crisis because they don't like where they are diplomatically," said Mr Green. "Therefore the Bush administration is trying very hard not to make this a 'crisis' but rather to do some jujitsu and turn the North Korean's move against them.
"It is not a crisis in the sense that we now have to change course in order to prevent them from doing this again. The fact is that they are unlikely to have another long-range missile ready to go...so it is not a crisis in the sense that North Korea wants, which is a complete rejigging of the strategy."
The administration's surface calm has long masked serious internal divisions over how to deal with North Korea - between the "hawks" who want to isolate and erode the regime, and more pragmatic officials who want a negotiated settlement. Critics says those divisions, combined with the preoccupation with Iraq and Iran, mean the US has failed to come up with a coherent response.
Graham Allison, an expert on nuclear terrorism at Harvard University and a senior defence official in the first Clinton administration, called current US policy towards North Korea "an abject failure".
He said the administration had correctly determined that the biggest threat to US security was a rogue regime acquiring nuclear weapons and transferring them to terrorists. But it was a "huge example of misplaced priorities" to have followed an "ignore and hope" policy on North Korea while invading Iraq and then turning to Iran.
Although the focus of diplomatic efforts has shifted to the UN Security Council, despite the failure of that body to take decisive action against North Korea when it ejected UN nuclear inspectors in 2002, the Bush administration is not giving up on the six-party process.
Ms Rice called her counterparts from China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. Chris Hill, the US envoy, was due to leave on Wednesday night for Beijing, then on to Seoul, Tokyo and Moscow.
"I think, in fact, the six-party diplomatic infrastructure has demonstrated its worth," commented Sean McCormack, the state department spokesman. "If you go back to the mid- to late '90s, you probably would have found a completely different situation in which it might have been the US and maybe Japan standing together. It's not the case today."
Some North Korea experts agreed with the Bush administration's position that the North Korean missile tests would only serve to further isolate the regime. Jon Wolfsthal, a North Korea expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, said that Pyongyang "gambled and they lost".
"They gambled that the missile would be a success and that they would be in a stronger position to push the US to either negotiate on their terms or to market the system and sell it and provoke the US. They gambled and they are now in a weaker position."
But Anthony Cordesman, a security expert at CSIS, said that it was unclear that the missile tests would actually backfire.
"[The missile tests] simultaneously put pressure on the US to directly negotiate on North Korean terms and on the region to find compromises that suited North Korea," said Mr Cordesman.
"It is easy to dismiss such actions on the grounds that they are 'irrational' or will 'backfire'. It is far from clear that this is the case...North Korea may or may not face a few hard weeks or months in reprisal, but it has reminded everyone of just how serious a threat North Korea can be, how limited most military options are, and how serious the risks of any major war would be."
(c) Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2006.
| Ander Nieuws week 28 / nieuwe oorlog 2006 |