UCLA International Institute
Asia Institute

Advancing collaborative, interdisciplinary research on Asia worldwide


Nuclear North Korea as Seen From 4 Capitals
Dae-Sook Suh, Chaibong Hahm, Scott Rembrandt, and William Drennan. (Photo by Angilee Shah)

Nuclear North Korea as Seen From 4 Capitals

Experts on the Koreas, China, and the US say that North Korea won't give up its nuclear arms and that differences between the US and negotiating partners, including ally South Korea, will complicate six-party talks.

South Korea isn't alarmed, the United States isn't surprised, and China is indignant.

Panelists at a Nov. 2, 2006, event sponsored by the UCLA Center for Korean Studies (CKS), the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, and Washington, D.C.–based Korea Economic Institute (KEI), said North Korea's October test of a nuclear bomb and its agreement to return to six-party talks are creating diplomatic challenges in East Asia.

In opening remarks, Ronald Rogowski, interim vice provost and dean of the International Institute and director of the Burkle Center, said, "It may be too early to celebrate North Korea's return to the negotiating table." Then panelists, each an expert on a single government's view, said that differences between South Korea, China, and the United States' policies on North Korea could complicate the upcoming six-party talks. University of Hawaii Professor Emeritus Dae-Sook Suh, the foremost Western expert on North Korea, described Pyongyang's views.

Suh said the North Koreans believe they have a right to arm themselves. Scott Rembrandt, director of research and academics at the KEI said that Beijing is taking strident measures against North Korea. Meanwhile, argued retired U.S. Air Force Colonel William Drennan, the United States is looking for concrete action rather than agreements that North Korea will likely break.

Much to the outside world's surprise, South Koreans were not alarmed by North Korea's nuclear test in October, according to Chaibong Hahm, director of the University of Southern California's Korean Studies Institute. Their ambivalence owed to deep suspicions about Japanese nationalism and, increasingly, American imperialism.

Although South Korea maintains the United States as an ally, its citizens' attitudes about the United States have seen an "extreme reversal," Hahm said. In the United States' dealings with North Korea, "the biggest casualty seems to be the trust between the United States and South Korea."

Drennan agreed. The Bush administration, he said, is "more frustrated with the ROK [South Korea] than the PRC [China]. There is general dismay that the South Korean government sees the North Korean nuclear test as a U.S. problem."

Rembrandt noted that China dominates North Korean finance. North Korea relies on China for 90 percent of its oil supply, for example. Thus the nuclear test carried through despite China's very vocal opposition was a "slap in China's face." Financial reports released last week show that China sent no crude oil to North Korea in the month of September. Rembrandt said he expects Chinese banks' reactions to be just as severe.

A-Test No Surprise for US

Citing sources in the Bush administration, Drennan said that the U.S. government has been preparing for North Korea to go nuclear for years. He said the United States pursues only finely targeted sanctions meant to hurt the elite in North Korea rather than the masses. North Korea cited U.S. financial penalties on the Macau banks it works with as the reason for its withdrawal from negotiations in April.

But the U.S. position appears to be marked by internal disagreement over how to approach North Korea, judging from comments by several panelists. "North Korea has violated every international agreement it has ever signed," Drennan said, leading critics of the six-party talks to question why the United States should negotiate at all.

However, Rembrandt said that the United States wants the six-party talks to go well to deter Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

Some U.S. officials, Drennan said in a question-and-answer period, would welcome a collapse of Kim Jong-il's regime. The panelists disagreed about what a collapse would mean to the region. Suh said the United States would move into the area, while Drennan and Rembrandt said that that the Untied States and South Korea might be worried about a Chinese incursion into the north of the peninsula.

The U.S. concern is not so much that North Korea will attack the United States -- a "suicidal gesture," said Drennan -- but that it will sell its nuclear weapons to other states or to terrorists.

Skewed American Perspective

Suh said that the American perspective of North Korea is skewed. He cautioned that he was not lauding or apologizing for North Korean policies, but said that blanket condemnation of the country is a mistake. "We always condemn North Korea in this country. We ridicule Kim Jong-il."

Pyongyang sees U.S. policy is inconsistent because the superpower does not object to nuclear weapons in Israel, India, or Pakistan.

The way North Koreans see it, he said, all sovereign nations have a right to a nuclear deterrent. Suh warned that North Korea's move could touch off an arms race in the region, particularly in South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. In the question-and-answer period Rembrandt responded that "China will never allow Taiwan to go nuclear, so this is not a real concern for Beijing."

North Korea operates in the service of two main goals, Suh said. One is to join the global community -- North Korea has not adjusted well since the end of the Cold War -- and the other is simply to survive. This is why, Suh said, "If the U.S. is waiting for North Korea to collapse, they will have to wait a long time."

A speaker to represent the Japanese perspective was conspicuously missing from the panel. CKS Director John Duncan, the panel moderator, said Japan has a large stake in this discussion and will likely side with the United States in the six-party talks, leading to further friction in already difficult relations with China and South Korea.

The panelists did agree on one thing: North Korea will not give up its hard-earned nuclear program.