In the politics of international brinkmanship, nothing succeeds like failure or the fact that the world thinks one has failed.
The more Western analysts and governments sought to deride North Korea’s ability to develop and deliver weapons of mass destruction, the greater was the determination of the “Korean masses” to demonstrate the robustness of their Beloved Leader’s “deterrent”. On Monday, Kim Jong Il’s nuclear scientists delivered a bomb that was considerably bigger than the 0.5 kilotonne yield they produced in 2006 but small enough to fit on the warhead of a missile.
The United States has condemned Pyongyang for brazenly defying the resolutions of the UN Security Council and India has described the test as a violation of North Korea’s international commitments. Both these comments are slightly off the mark. North Korea has indeed defied the UN, but one may question the right of the Security Council to single out a country for censure when eight others already possess nuclear weapons, including three that are, like Pyongyang, not party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. As for violating its own commitments, North Korea, unlike India, never announced a test moratorium.
That said, the latest test is a provocative, desperate act that will increase tension in East Asia. North Korea’s leaders are also guilty of violating good sense and reason in believing nuclear weapons will make them more secure. But condemning Kim Jong Il and his comrades is easy. Figuring out the right diplomatic strategy to deal with the fall-out is more difficult. The UNSC condemned North Korea in April after a rocket launch. That condemnation drew an explicit threat from Pyongyang that it would be “compelled to take additional self-defensive measures … includ(ing) nuclear tests”. The North Koreans have now delivered on that threat. Next will be the resumption of fissile material production. If the world’s powers want to stop this needless escalation, it’s time to take the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, as the country is formally called, seriously.
Bill Clinton had the right approach when he finalized the Agreed Framework with North Korea during his presidency in 1994. Unfortunately, George W. Bush undermined and scuttled that agreement by falsely accusing the DPRK of running a hidden uranium enrichment programme. The U.S. scrambled to recover lost ground when North Korea activated its withdrawal from the NPT but the groundless imposition of financial sanctions again queered the pitch. Finally, in October 2006, thanks to the ineptitude of the Bush administration’s diplomacy, a nuclearised North Korea was foisted on the world.
The nuclear test of 2006 had a very low yield and was variously described as a “dud” and a “fizzle”. However, once the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) detected noble gases, thereby confirming the non-conventional nature of the explosion, the world should have realized the world’s ninth nuclear weapon state had arrived. But that never happened. Careless handling of the situation has allowed North Korea to now refine its weapon design and solve whatever “technological difficulties” it experienced in 2006.
Regardless of what one thinks of nuclear weapons and the states that have them, possession is nine-tenths of the law. And the laws of deterrence, diplomacy and realpolitik meant Pyongyang could no longer be treated the way it had been before 2006. Once it went nuclear, the DPRK became as much of a threat to international peace and security as the other eight nuclearised states. However, the U.S. managed to persuade the UN Security Council to single out North Korea and imposed sanctions on it. To be sure, the Six Party Talks were also revived around a new framework with Chinese assistance but U.S. leaders and military commanders, not to speak of their allies in Japan, still viewed the DPRK with condescension and even contempt.
As part of the verification process agreed to in the Six Party Talks in 2007, North Korea declared a modest plutonium stockpile of 37 kilos. On a visit to Pyongyang in February 2009, the American academic, Selig Harrison, was told that this plutonium had already been “weaponised” and would not be available for inspection, disablement or even denuclearisation until the wider issue of U.S.-North Korea relations was settled satisfactorily. Depending on design and yield, 37 kilos of Pu translates into anything from five to 10 nuclear bombs. Despite this reality, the U.S. continued to regard the DPRK as a non-nuclear weapon state. In the run up to its recent “satellite” launch, for example, Japanese and American officials and analysts openly spoke about their “right” to shoot down the North Korean rocket. Such threats are never bandied about so casually while speaking of a nuclear adversary.
For a state looking to protect itself from the threat of aggression and externally-induced regime change, this continuous ridicule meant only one thing: keep testing your nuclear weapons and missiles till the world is ready to take you seriously.
The explosive yield of Monday’s nuclear test – which showed up at 4.7 on the Richter scale at monitoring stations around the world – should decisively settle the debate over North Korean technological capabilities in the WMD field. And even if the “satellite” the DPRK sought to launch never made it to orbit, the fact remains that the Taepodong-2 rocket it used succeeded in hitting an impact area in the Pacific Ocean more than 2,000 miles away exactly as planned.
For both the U.S. and China, the North Korean problem is something that cannot be ignored because its denouement could affect the strategic choices Japan and the wider Asian region takes. As a recent Congressional Research Service report notes, the nuclear status of the Korean peninsula will be a key factor in any future debate in Japan over that country’s non-nuclear status. “Any eventual reunification of the Korean Peninsula could further induce Japan to reconsider its nuclear stance,” the February 2009 report titled Japan’s Nuclear Future noted. “If the two Koreas unify while North Korea still holds nuclear weapons and the new state opts to keep a nuclear arsenal, Japan may face a different calculation,” it said, citing some Japanese analysts as describing a nuclear-armed unified Korea as “more of a threat than a nuclear-armed North Korea.”
With an eye on Japanese doubts about the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence in the wake of the 2006 North Korean test, Condoleezza Rice, who was Secretary of State at the time, stressed America’s “will and capability to meet the full range, and I underscore full range, of its deterrence and security commitments to Japan”. But unlike China, which would see a nuclearised Japan as an unmitigated strategic nightmare, Washington’s concerns vis-à-vis Tokyo are a by-product of its relations with Beijing. For some hawks on the fringe of the American debate, for example, a nuclear Japan could serve as a welcome pressure point on a China that is rapidly modernizing its armed forces. Other, more mainstream hawks believe the North Korean tests represent the failure of diplomacy and advocate greater coercion and even military pressure on Pyongyang to roll back its programme. Both of these approaches are foolish, especially given the renewed focus in Washington on Sino-U.S. cooperation.
In his Prague speech earlier this month, President Barack Obama used overly muscular language against the DPRK but all he achieved was another nuclear test. Today, there is no reason to believe louder condemnation and tougher sanctions by the Security Council will produce a different outcome.
There are two reasons to believe diplomacy will work. For one, China has a major incentive to bring the DPRK back into the dialogue process. Second, for all its petulance and irrationality, North Korea is the only nuclear weapon state that has expressed a willingness to give up its weapons in the context of regional denuclearisation. Israel refuses to even entertain such a bargain and India and Pakistan will not abandon their weapons till the Big Five are ready to do so. If the stalemate persists, the DPRK may well abandon the goal of a denuclearised Korean peninsula, thereby triggering a wider arms race. Instead of that outcome, the international community needs to act with restraint, avoid coercive steps and work towards reviving the Six Party Talks process. Which, at the end of the day, is still the only roadmap the world has for a peaceful resolution of the problem