The revelation this week that North Korea pursued a secret nuclear weapons program, in defiance of international agreements, “has stunned the world, set off alarm bells throughout the Far East and created a major dilemma for the Bush administration,” according to Canada’s Globe and Mail. In 1994, Pyongyang promised to halt its nuclear efforts in exchange for energy aid from a U.S.-led consortium. The National Post of Toronto thundered, “The agreement … has proved as good as North Korea’s word. What began as a craven exercise in appeasement … has ended as these things usually do: with disillusionment on one side, an undiminished threat on the other, and another round of blackmail in the offing.”
The Financial Times wondered why North Korea had suddenly fessed up to its clandestine nuclear program: “Is it an act of contrition, belligerence or blackmail?” The Daily Telegraph chose the last option, declaring, “Pyongyang is a past master at playing a weak hand skilfully.” The Times of London presented three theories for Pyongyang’s timing: response to U.S. pressure; signs of a gradual opening up the outside world; or a desire to take advantage of the Bush administration’s current fixation on Iraq.
The Bush administration’s response to North Korea’s revelation has been to seek a diplomatic solution, a reaction that several papers contrasted with its all-out attack on Saddam Hussein. The National Post offered a simple explanation: “It’s because North Korea already has the bomb. If we attacked, or even threatened to, they might level Seoul. It is precisely to avoid this predicament that the Americans have been pressing to take out Saddam Hussein: now, before he has the bomb.” Marcus Gee, the Globe and Mail’s roving foreign correspondent, maintained that “[t]hough North Korea is far from harmless it has never actually used weapons of mass destruction”—unlike Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. None of the options for dealing with Pyongyang are desirable—conflict must be avoided because North Korea could “level Seoul with a few hours of artillery fire,” economic sanctions would hurt starving citizens still further, and the “modest” advances of the last few years could be lost. “But,” Gee concluded, “it has to be made clear to North Korea’s leaders that, as long as they continue to threaten other countries, they cannot expect our aid.”
Britain’s Independent accused the Bush administration of operating a double standard: “Given that the justification for using military force against Saddam Hussein is to prevent his developing weapons of mass destruction, and particularly nuclear weapons, the inconsistencies of US policy are exposed.” The editorial favored the diplomatic approach for both countries: “If a policy of carrot, stick and coalition can work to contain the threat from North Korea, why cannot the same logic be applied to Iraq? If it were, that might encourage Arab and Muslim nations to join in the much more difficult struggle against stateless terrorism.”
The Times recommended that North Korea’s admission, which “is in marked contrast to its traditional policy of blatant lying,” should be seen as an attempt to initiate further dialogue: “As long as Pyongyang proves it is willing to change, the West would be wise not to disengage when skilful diplomacy could bring rewards.” Whatever the approach, Spain’s El País said, “When the threat of a U.S. attack hangs over Baghdad and the challenge of Islamist terrorism is open on all fronts, a crisis in the Far East that would convulse the international scene is a luxury we cannot afford.”
A roundup of the South Korean press published in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that “most newspapers accused North Korea of treachery and South Korea of naivety, and demanded a review of aid to the government of communist leader Kim Jong-il.” The Korea Times sensed betrayal: “Behind the smiling face and peaceful gestures, the Northern regime was secretly developing weapons of mass destruction.” The paper was outraged that Pyongyang was developing nukes while Seoul was pursuing its “sunshine policy.” The Korea Herald disagreed: “[S]ome ultra-rightists’ blaming of the appeasement policy for the latest nuclear trouble is not only undesirable but dangerous. Without the sunshine policy, the South might have not even had a chance to directly talk with the North, let alone deliver its demands.”