Peter Alford – The Australian October 11, 2006
Rogue state North Korea last night threatened a nuclear missile attack if trade and financial sanctions are not dropped, but also offered to return to negotiations about disbanding its atomic weapons program.
The new tactical swerve came a day after Pyongyang defied the world's major powers by exploding a small nuclear bomb, and almost 12 months after it boycotted the six-party disarmament talks.
"We hope the situation will be resolved before an unfortunate incident of us firing a nuclear missile comes," an unnamed North Korean official told South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
The country's failed test of a long-range Taepodong-2 missile on July 5 demonstrated the North Koreans were years away from being able to launch an attack on the mainland US.
However, their proven Rodong medium-range missiles are able to reach all of South Korea and most of the Japanese archipelago, leaving the question of whether dictator Kim Jong-il's technicians have managed to devise a small enough bomb for a missile warhead.
Most foreign analysts also judge that to be outside North Korea's current capabilities, but that has not stopped the Stalinist regime regularly threatening to turn Japanese and mainland US cities into "seas of fire".
Monday's test was unanimously viewed by the US, China, South Korea and Japan - which, with Russia and North Korea, make up the six-party nations - as marking a new and dangerous stage in the North's 13-year campaign of strategic blackmail.
But a North Korean official in Beijing claimed it was actually "an expression of our intention to face the US across the negotiating table".
"We still have a willingness to give up nuclear weapons and to return to six-party talks as well," he said. "It's possible whenever the US takes corresponding measures."
The regime's veering between threats and wheedling may reflect Mr Kim's concern that he miscalculated on Monday, especially by humiliating and angering his principal ally, China.
The US and Japan last night returned to the UN Security Council with a package of hardline sanctions US Assistant Secretary of State for Asian Affairs Christopher Hill said would "really make it hurt" for the North Koreans.
The proposals included a ban on trading military-related and luxury items - a direct swipe at Mr Kim's small and cosseted leadership group - authorisation to stop and search all cargo entering or leaving North Korea and freezing overseas assets suspected of association with its weapons programs.
A document outlining the sanctions says the US wants the resolution to fall under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which deals explicitly with threats to international peace and security, as well as acts of aggression.
Chapter 7 grants the council the authority to impose a range of measures, from breaking diplomatic ties and imposing economic and military sanctions to taking military action.
It was still unclear last night how much of the package was acceptable to China and Russia, who have council vetoes. But Beijing has indicated its readiness to allow the North to be sanctioned as long as the door to negotiations remains open.
Another sign of miscalculation came yesterday when Japan undertook not to go nuclear in response to Pyongyang's provocation, removing a potential fracture point with the other powers trying to stare down the regime.
"Possession of nuclear arms is not an option at all for our country," new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the national parliament, the Diet.
"I want to state clearly that there will be no change at all in our three non-nuclear principles," he said, referring to the policy of no-possession, no-production and no-presence of nuclear weapons on Japanese soil adopted by the Diet 35 years ago.
Mr Abe returned to Tokyo from his flying visits to Beijing and Seoul to confront speculation that the new threat might prompt his Government to consider an independent nuclear weapons capability, jeopardising the future of the US-Japan military alliance.
But he told the Diet that on arriving home on Monday night he called US President George W.Bush and they agreed the alliance was "an unshakable relationship with which deterrence is maintained".
Under the alliance, the US guarantees Japan's security from external attack with coverage by its "extended deterrence" nuclear umbrella, military bases on Japanese soil and an anti-ballistic missile defence system now under joint development.
The Japanese spend Y4.8 trillion ($54.1 billion) a year on national security. It is the world's fifth-biggest military budget but, outside the US alliance, Japan would be obliged to spend three or four times more.
Last updated 12/10/2006