An angry North Korea yesterday evicted all international nuclear inspectors after saying it would withdraw from six-nation disarmament negotiations and resume work at its nuclear facilities in response to a UN Security Council statement condemning its long-range missile launch.
The bellicose steps taken Pyongyang threaten to give President Barack Obama his biggest foreign policy headache yet. The White House hoped his more conciliatory tone would have drawn North Korea closer into disarmament talks. But since the firing of its rocket ten days ago, the reality has looked quite different.
"We have no choice but to further strengthen our nuclear deterrent to cope with additional military threats by hostile forces," the Pyongyang regime said in a statement. It added that there would be "no need to hold six-party talks" because other members have turned them into "a platform for infringing upon the sovereignty" of North Korea. It may be that North Korea is feeling particularly stung by the decisions of Russia and China to join other members of the Security Council in Monday's unanimous condemnation of the launch, even though both countries had resisted attempts by the US to take the process further with a fully-fledged sanctions resolution.
International inspections of North Korea's nuclear facilities had resumed only last October. Even before Pyongyang ejected the inspectors, governments around the world were lamenting its hardline reaction and threat to leave the six-party talks which bring together North and South Korea, China, Japan, the US and Russia. Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, warned against seeking an alternative approach. "The negotiators of this forum have reached important agreements that impose obligations on all the parties, not only North Korea," he said. A US official called the Pyongyang statement "unfortunate", while China last night asked for calm on all sides.
The six-party talks have long been a stop-go affair. Progress had seemed promising in 2007 when North Korea agreed to begin disabling facilities at its main Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for development aid and deliveries of fuel oil from the West. But even before this latest crisis, the talks had become bogged down over the lack of transparency offered by North Korea in accounting for its past nuclear activities.
The North continues to insist that the launch of the long-range missile on 5 April placed a communications satellite in orbit and was therefore peaceful. US observers have claimed that the satellite actually crashed into the Pacific while the Pentagon believes its real intent was to test the rocket for military purposes. US anxiety comes not least because it fears North Korea might one day be able to fire warheads as far Alaska and Hawaii.
Diplomats will now search for ways to soothe North Korea. It may not be easy or swift, however. "The UN statement humiliated North Korea internationally, and that's why North Korea angrily reacted to it," Atsuhito Isozaki, assistant professor of North Korean politics at Keio University in Japan, argued yesterday. "Since China and Russia supported the statement, North Korea feels betrayed."
Red flags on the Iranian dossier also went up yesterday after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced his government was preparing to send a satellite into space using a missile with a range of almost 1,000 miles.
The White House has been preparing to soften the conditions under which it would resume talks with Iran over the curbing of its alleged nuclear weapons ambitions, according to a New York Times report. Specifically, the US would agree to join the talks even without insisting that Iran first suspend its uranium-enrichment activities, which had been a key condition for the previous Bush administration.
The change in tack is likely to meet with the approval of the European nations that are part of the negotiations with Iran, including Britain. Last week, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El-Baradei, described the approach adopted by the Bush administration towards Iran as "ridiculous" and a "total failure". He added: "They thought that if you threatened enough and pounded the table and sent Cheney off to act like Darth Vader the Iranians would just stop."