North Korea: Playing the Nuclear Card

When Japanese and North Korean representatives sat down for two days of talks in Kuala Lumpur in late October, there were many thorny issues on the table. Chief among these was the recent North Korean admission that it has developed a nuclear weapons program—an announcement that, when made to a U.S. assistant secretary of state earlier in the month, had sent shock waves across the region and the world.

Suspected site of some of North Korea's nuclear program
Hagap, North Korea, the suspected site of an underground complex used for developing nuclear weapons. (Photo: IKONOS satellite/AFP).

Reactions to North Korea’s confession were uniformly negative. “Another North Korean Headache,” read a headline in Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun (Oct. 22). An editorial in the same paper (Oct. 28) called out: “North Korea a Nuclear Menace.” One of the paper’s news analyses noted (Nov. 4) that North Korea had “fooled the world” and, in so doing, had “seriously undermined the extent to which any country can trust [it].” 

But the North Korean government was unrepentant. In a statement published by the Korea Central News Agency (Oct. 25), a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman blamed the United States for trying to “stifle” his country “by force” and traced the current situation to the fact that “the United States has massively stockpiled nuclear weapons in South Korea and its vicinity and threatened the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)...for nearly a half century, pursuing a hostile policy toward it in accordance with the strategy for world supremacy.” He continued: “The DPRK, which values sovereignty more than life, was left with no other proper answer to the United States behaving so arrogantly and impertinently.”

One South Korean paper expressed dismay at its government’s strategy of trying to placate the North. An editorial in Chosun Ilbo complained (Oct. 25) “that oh so many, beginning with the current ruling camp, believe that we shouldn’t take issue with the North no matter what it may try, and that we should be as accommodating as possible.”

The Japanese position, however, was somewhat more aggressive. “North Korea’s brinkmanship, in which it attempts to win concessions in such fields as energy and financial assistance by flaunting its ‘nuclear card’, is no longer effective,” The Yomiuri Shimbun pointed out (Oct. 28) in an editorial.

Some remained optimistic that a solution would be reached. The chief editor of the monthly Korea Report told Japan’s Asahi Shimbun (Oct. 28) that “Japan has a chance to prove itself on the world stage by acting as a moderator between North Korea and the United States.” 

The talks between Japan and North Korea, however, did not yield much success. Concluded a writer for The Yomiuri Shimbun (Nov. 4), “What is most heartbreaking and pitiful is that a solution to the thorny nuclear arms issue is still a long way off, and North Korea looks set to be hit by the coldest winter in recorded history.”