THE US has been positioning its aircraft carrier strike force Carl Vinson and USS Michigan, an Ohio class nuclear submarine, off the coast of the Korean peninsula. Trump has threatened that if China does not intervene, the US will “solve the problem” of a nuclear Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) “all by itself”; presumably through military strikes. The French, never too far behind the US, have sent their amphibious assault carrier, the Mistral, for “joint manoeuvres”. The Korean peninsula and nearby countries including Japan, are now in imminent danger of another US military misadventure that can spin rapidly out of control.
The US has never forgiven DPRK and China for inflicting a heavy defeat on its forces during the 1950-53 Korean War. Of course, this victory came at a very heavy price for the Koreans. DPRK lost 20 percent to 30 percent of its population due to carpet bombing. Even McArthur, who was at that time advocating the use of nuclear bombs against China and DPRK, was sickened by the slaughter. Testifying before the Congressional Committee, he said, “The war in Korea has already almost destroyed that nation...I have never seen such devastation...I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just turned my stomach, the last time I was there. After I looked at that wreckage and those thousands of women and children and everything, I vomited...”
The world may have forgotten the carnage of the Korean War; for the Korean people, this memory still remains fresh.
The global mainstream media will have us believe that DPRK leaders are “unstable”, “volatile”, “irrational” and the root of the problem. What it hides, is that the US has not only bombed and invaded DPRK, but it repeats this threat every year through large scale, theatre level military exercises. These exercises involve troop movements for crossing the border between South Korea and DPRK, simulation of beach landings and overthrowing the government of DPRK. In various forms, these exercises have been there now for the last 50 years. Every year, it ratchets up tensions in the peninsula. Lest we forget, what we have in Korea is only an “Armistice”. Technically, the Korean War is still on.
In 2002, George Bush characterised DPRK as a part of the “Axis of Evil”. Can the world consider DPRK's concern against US aggression as misplaced, when we see what has happened to the other countries – Iraq and Libya – that Bush had characterised as a part of the Axis of Evil?
DPRK has said time and again that if the US gives up its military exercises, it will give up its nuclear programme. This is an offer they held out again this year, and repeated by China. The Trump administration rejected it out of hand, the same way that Obama had rejected the same offers earlier.
The DPRK had started a nuclear and a missile programme in the 1980's. It felt that a nuclear capability would provide a bargaining counter with the US for long term peace in the peninsula, and avoid costly conventional military build-up that it might otherwise need.
The US intelligence agencies came to realise by the early 90's, DPRK had a stock of plutonium from its 5-MW Yongbyon reactor. Estimates varied from a few grams to a few kgs of fissile grade plutonium, sufficient for one or two bombs. DPRK had also started plans for two Light Water Reactors of 50-MW and 200-MW capacity for producing electricity to be commissioned by early 2000. Once all these facilities were in place, DPRK would have had the capability of producing up to 20-30 bombs a year. Simultaneously, it was also developing missile capability, by upgrading the Soviet era missiles in its stock.
It was in this context that the US and DPRK negotiated the 1994 Framework Agreement. Its key features were dismantling the existing Yongbyon reactor, stopping the construction and eventual dismantling of the new 50-MW and 200-MW reactors, and putting all its stock of spent fuel, from which fissile plutonium could be extracted, under IAEA safeguards. In lieu of this, the US agreed to provide two 1000-MW Light Water Reactors and supply fuel oil for producing electricity till these two reactors were built.
While the world now admits that the Bush administration lied about the Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD's), no serious questioning has ever been done of Bush's claims that it is the DPRK that violated the 1994 Agreement and that is why the US walked out of it.
Did DPRK really breach the agreement or did the US lie about it the same way it lied about Iraq's WMD's?
Unlike what we read in the western media, DPRK did carry out its part of the bargain. It dismantled its reactors and put its spent fuel rods under IAEA safeguards. Joel Wit, a former state department official and very much a part of the 1994 Agreement, writes that as a consequence of the 1994 Agreement (Foreign Policy: April 27, 2016), “Pyongyang’s development of a plutonium production programme, ongoing since the 1960s at a cost of tens, maybe hundreds, of billions of dollars... became a pile of unsalvageable junk.”
It was the US that never held up its side of the bargain. By 2002, instead of the two 1,000 MW reactors being finished, only some preliminary civil works had started. The fuel oil shipments, supposed to continue as long as the reactors were being built, saw only sporadic supplies.
The Bush administration, wanted to blow up the Agreement when it come to office in 2002. DPRK's importing centrifuges from Pakistan for a uranium enrichment programme came in handy for this purpose. As John Bolton, the US Ambassador to the UN puts it, “It was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.”
The US walked out of its commitment of the 1994 Agreement, laid down conditions that DPRK had to “surrender its nuclear and missile programme or else.” DPRK chose “or else”.
While the US argued that any uranium enrichment programme was against the “spirit” of the 1994 Agreement, they never addressed the question under what clause was importing centrifuges or enriching uranium a breach of the Agreement?
Much of the discussions that apply to DPRK are also common to the Iran issue. The Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) allows for peaceful use of nuclear energy, including a fuel cycle. If DPRK did not want to be dependent on the US for nuclear fuel, it would need an indigenous fuel programme; uranium enrichment was a part of its civilian nuclear energy programme.
Of course, the same centrifuges can also produce Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) required for a weapons programme. That is the nature of the nuclear technology and why it is dual use.
The US had the option of accepting, as it has now done for Iran, that DPRK has the right to a nuclear fuel cycle. It had also the option to negotiate capping of DPRK's missile and fuel enrichment programmes, give guarantees against aggression, and stop the highly provocative military exercises it carries out each year on DPRK's borders. Instead, it walked out of a functioning Framework Agreement, which had effectively dismantled DPRK's plutonium programme. DPRK then walked out of NPT, took back the 8,000 kg spent fuel rods it had handed over to IAEA, and within a few years conducted nuclear tests. Its missiles can now reach Japan and the US military bases in Okinawa and Guam, the US islands of Hawaii, and in another 3-4 years, even reach the US mainland.
The US under Trump believes that more sabre rattling – this time with aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines – will cow DPRK down and make them surrender. The US and Bush Junior's policy of browbeating DPRK did not work in 2002. Why would the US and Trump's threats be more credible today after DPRK has built a nuclear arsenal?
Or does Trump believe what Bolton wrote recently: the only way to end North Korea's nuclear programme is to “end North Korea”. Something that Senator Lindsay Graham is also advocating: take out North Korea in a preemptive strike even if it means “sacrificing” South Korea and Japan, and some damage to China. Is this what Trump is contemplating when he says that the US “will solve the problem by itself”?