Isolation forces North Korea to chart its own course

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 March, 2003, 12:00am

The thud of each bomb on Baghdad resonates with grim foreboding in Pyongyang. Despite assurances from the United States, North Korean officials believe their country is next and they say war preparations are under way.

North Korea's foreign ministry marked the start of the war with a terse statement of condemnation, saying that sovereign and human rights were being violated. The US was on a course to similarly bulldoze North Korea's sovereignty, according to a spokesman for the consul-general in Hong Kong.

'Although they say they have no intention to do this, we are very suspicious of their intentions,' he said. 'I can definitely say that any attack - even one or two bullets - would be war and we would have to fight whether we like it or not.'

US President George W. Bush's inclusion of North Korea in his axis of evil was 'ridiculous, groundless and irrational'.

A growing number of observers agree that American unilateralism makes North Korea the prime target. In tandem with the view is debate over whether Kim Jong-il's regime deserves to be treated the same as Saddam Hussein's. The Rand Corporation's Bruce Bennett believes North Korea has not given up its intention to invade South Korea. If it has uranium and plutonium enrichment programmes and has developed up to 10 nuclear weapons, as some strategists claim, the South, Japan and the US are threatened.

'Why have that number?' Dr Bennett asked. 'They're not all for export - they're probably mainly for their own use, and who would they be targeting other than South Korea?' Japan may also be in North Korea's sights, as is the US in the distant future, when the capacity to deliver nuclear bombs with intercontinental ballistic missiles is realised.

South Koreans do not perceive the threat to the same degree as Dr Bennett, a California-based analyst. President Roh Moo-hyun's government is persisting with the 'sunshine policy' of his predecessor Kim Dae-jung. The US is ignoring North Korean calls for bilateral dialogue, insisting instead on multilateral engagement with the help of South Korea, Japan and China.

Hong Kong aid worker Kathi Zellweger disagreed with the 'evil' tag used to describe North Korea, opting instead for 'misunderstood'. Recently returned from her 42nd visit since 1995, she perhaps has a better understanding of the country than Mr Bush and his intelligence networks. 'I don't have the feeling of war-mongering towards the South - it's more muscle-flexing,' she said. 'North Korea and the US are like two stubborn children who are not willing to give in.'

Ms Zellweger, director of international co-operation with the Catholic charity Caritas, believed energy and self-defence were the focus of the North Korean government. A severe lack of electricity and fuel was affecting all areas of society. 'The big issue is energy - there's no doubt about that,' Ms Zellweger said. 'Energy affects everything in the country - transport, food aid, harvests and industrial productivity.'

North Korea has claimed its intention in restarting a nuclear facility at Yongbyon, 90km north of Pyongyang, was to help alleviate the power shortage - not for weapons production, as the US has alleged.

Unification of the Korean peninsula is a constant theme in conversations and there is a genuine desire that this would one day happen. Officials are becoming more open to ideas and were willing to participate in meetings and discussions - and Ms Zellweger saw this as the way forward.

She likened North Korea to a box into which ideas could be thrown and the ones which fitted best could be utilised by its officials. The Bush administration certainly seems to share the analogy - although the ideas it is throwing North Korea's way are not terribly constructive.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's Foreign Editor