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Opinion - News Analysis Different strokes of ‘nuclear diplomacy’
P. S. Suryanarayana
The question is one of cheese and chalk — the ‘soft’ approach of East Asian members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group towards India and their ‘tough’ choices in ‘denuclearising’ North Korea now.
The new crisis in North Korea’s “denuclearisation,” which poses a challenge to the ingenuity of the lead players in the intermittent Six-Party Talks (SPT), has brought under focus different shades of ‘nuclear diplomacy’ in East Asia.
Major countries in this region, which approved the recent pro-India consensus in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), are in fact trying to deflect Pyongyang from a path of “re-nuclearisation” at this stage. Surely, the objective of recognising this reality is not to equate India with North Korea.
India, now widely seen as a rising and responsible global player, has never been a party to the discriminatory Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In contrast, North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is presently outside the NPT, after having been bound by it for a number of years. And, the United States is only now examining the pros and cons of removing the DPRK from the long-standing American list of “rogue states,” or more precisely, “state-sponsors of terrorism.”
In a high point of this drama of contrasts, the India-specific U.S. legislation for civil nuclear energy cooperation was endorsed on the Capitol Hill on October 1 in the local calendar. And, on October 2 in East Asia, U.S. envoy Christopher Hill sought to defuse the latest crisis over the DPRK’s nuclear issues by holding talks with its leaders in Pyongyang.
Despite such a crystal-clear contrast, there is some similarity between the key issue now being addressed in the DPRK’s case and a central theme in the recent India-specific deliberations of the NSG. Some NSG activists wanted to be sure that India would resolutely adhere to its unilateral moratorium on further nuclear-weapon testing. And, at present, the main concern in the SPT circles is that the DPRK, which conducted a solitary low-yield nuclear-weapon test nearly two years ago, should not abandon “denuclearisation” and resume testing.
The SPT, whose agenda is to bring about “denuclearisation” of the entire Korean peninsula, brings together the U.S., the DPRK, China as Chair of the talks, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. All of them, except the DPRK, are NSG members; and they were party to the recent India-specific consensus, which allows it access to materials, equipment, and knowhow in the civil nuclear energy sector.
The U.S., more than Russia, did in the end influence the thinking of Japan, South Korea, and China, all East Asian states, as also Australia and New Zealand in the extended region, in favour of India in the NSG. So, in a sense, the current thinking of the DPRK’s five SPT-linked dialogue partners on the Korean nuclear issue can be compared with their recent thinking on the India question in the NSG.
Very recently, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) de-sealed and removed all surveillance-gadgets from the DPRK’s reprocessing plant at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. The plant was earlier sealed under the supervision of IAEA inspectors and in terms of the SPT agreements. In fact, the agreed SPT formulae provided for steps to “disable” the DPRK’s known nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. And, the “disablement” is a prelude to their permanent “dismantlement” under the overall “denuclearisation” package in respect of North Korea’s plutonium-based nuclear-weapons programme.
While the de-sealing reverses this process of “disablement,” two other collateral issues are also relevant to the current crisis. Unresolved, at the time this article is written, is the dispute over the modalities of verifying the DPRK’s “nuclear declaration,” already presented under the SPT framework. The other issue relates to Pyongyang’s suspected uranium-based nuclear-weapons programme.
Against the backdrop of these unresolved issues, the de-sealing was carried out in late September, at Pyongyang’s behest; and IAEA inspectors were also withdrawn from Yongbyon. Significant in these circumstances is the fact that the IAEA Board members from East Asia, some of them being NSG participants as well, did not prevent the de-sealing. Two reasons are applicable to this setting.
First, the DPRK, not being a member of the IAEA and not a party to the NPT in recent years, had “voluntarily” agreed to the sealing under the SPT process alone. To this extent, there was nothing that the IAEA could really do to dissuade the DPRK from asking for a de-sealing. Secondly, the “exceptional status,” which the IAEA and the NSG recently granted India, on the grounds of its high non-proliferation credentials, has had a psychological impact on the NSG members from East Asia. These East Asian players have acted in concert with the U.S. on the India issue in the NSG, but more so as a ‘concession’ to the sensibilities of U.S. President George W. Bush. And, thereby hangs a tale of “strategic realities” in East Asia.
Official India’s view of China’s final say in the NSG has to do with the ebb and flow of the relationship between them since the 1950s and with perceptions about their parallel rise as economic and political powers at present. At the other end of the spectrum, Wang Jisi, an America-specialist and an “advisor” to Chinese President Hu Jintao, pointed out, not long ago, that Official China had reason to see the U.S. as “the mainstay of hostile forces.” At the same time, Beijing’s pragmatism in foreign policy is almost proverbial. As Avery Goldstein, John Ikenberry and several other experts have noted, China has chosen to rise as a global power within the “constraints” of the existing U.S.-dominated order. China’s studied ‘concession’ to U.S. wishes becomes meaningful in this context, especially when a potential spin-off can be some goodwill from India.
As for Japan, still a ‘pacifist’ state, and Australia as also South Korea, both being U.S. allies and non-proliferation campaigners, Bush’s wish-list about India tipped the arguments in the NSG. And, New Zealand, with its modest profile in global affairs, could not obviously swim against the U.S.-propelled current for long.
On balance, with China now re-emerging as the major player that the U.S. is turning to for breaking the DPRK-related logjam, the different strokes of ‘nuclear diplomacy’ in East Asia will come into a greater focus. The question is one of cheese and chalk – the ‘soft’ approach of East Asian members of the NSG towards India and their ‘tough’ choices in ‘denuclearising’ North Korea now.