Thursday, April 24, 2014
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The World’s North Korean Test

DENVER – The most recent North Korean nuclear test is the most dangerous of the three to date. How the international community responds, in both word and deed, will say much about the world we live in. And, whether the Chinese like it or not, how they respond will speak volumes about what kind of role China will play in global governance.

While details are not yet fully known, the test suggests substantial progress on the part of North Korea’s scientists in increasing the yield of their weaponry. The October 2006 test suggested the possibility of a faulty design, while there were questions about whether the 2009 effort was even nuclear in nature.

But North Korea’s test this month was by all measures the real thing. Moreover, though it is hard to evaluate North Korean bluster on these occasions, there appears to be reason to be concerned that North Korean scientists have also made progress in miniaturizing their design, a step needed to mount a nuclear device on a missile.

Most worrisome of all, we cannot rule out that North Korea may have succeeded in enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels. We have scant information about this, beyond some limited information about international acquisitions and some detection of traces of highly enriched uranium (HEU) on materials brought out of North Korea. If North Korea is using HEU in its bomb design, we have little knowledge about where it comes from and how much of it they have, or could have in the future.

There are some who would urge that we all remain calm (good advice in most circumstances) and somehow take comfort in the fact that North Korea still faces many serious technical hurdles before it can successfully add nuclear weapons to its considerable conventional arsenal. After all, it took the United States 12 years to mount a weapon on a missile.

But all indications are that the North Koreans have accelerated their testing schedule and have made nuclear weapons a top priority. North Korean propaganda is not always a reliable indicator, but the recent upswing in attacks on the US, including a bizarre video to the tune of “We are the World” should not be completely laughed off. Gone are the hopes that the boy-dictator Kim Jong-un and his regents are more interested in economic development than they are in following the Kim dynasty’s traditional military-first policies.

North Korea’s latest nuclear test is thus a test in many senses of the word. For starters, it tests whether the 43-year-old Non-Proliferation Treaty is still viable. After all, the NPT’s objective is to “prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.” Some might say that just two new wannabes, North Korea and Iran, is not so bad. But, when it comes to nuclear weapons, even one is more than enough.

The latest detonation also tests whether the world can make addressing North Korea’s dangerous aspirations a priority by uniting around a common policy that is more than rhetorical in its condemnation. One thing we know about the North Koreans is that, unless they can use such rhetoric in their own propaganda (they got far more traction out of former US President George W. Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” remark than he ever did), they simply don’t care what is said about them.

Similarly, threatening North Korea with isolation, the hardy perennial of diplomatic pressuring, does not work, because isolation is exactly what the North Koreans want. What the international community needs to do is to come together on a program of action aimed at producing a result.

Economic sanctions alone are dubious against the world’s most sanctioned country. And threatening more sanctions in the future raises the question of why those sanctions have not already been imposed.

In recent days, US President Barack Obama’s administration has done well to encourage countries big and small to speak out. Clearly, no single country can solve this problem. But encouraging countries to make statements and adhere to the sanctions regime will not get us to the goal that we need to achieve.

Every country needs to feel the threat from North Korea, and thus to feel the need to participate in addressing it, regardless of their relationships with or attitudes about the US. Enmity toward the US should not translate into forbearance toward North Korea.

There are also those – a dwindling minority, fortunately – who continue to suggest that more needs to be done on the negotiating track. In fact, that track should remain open, but no one should be under the illusion that negotiations are somehow the missing piece of the puzzle. North Korea looked at every offer on the table during the six-party talks that began in 2003 – a peace treaty, economic and energy assistance, and membership in a regional association – and walked away.

Similarly, bilateral requests that North Korea had made for years, such as repeal of its designation by the US as an enemy in the context of the “Trading with the Enemy Act,” once delivered, were dismissed as unimportant. Such offers remain on the table, gathering dust, but it has been entirely North Korea’s decision not to pursue them.

Finally, the real test here may be not so much what the world will do, but rather what China, North Korea’s sole remaining ally, will do. No one expects China to resolve this problem by itself. But the world is watching China and its incoming leadership for clues about what kind of member of the international community China really aspires to be.

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  1. CommentedClarence L.

    “But the world is watching China and its incoming leadership for clues about what kind of member of the international community China really aspires to be.”
    I believe China, the sole ally of North Korea, is the country that can highly influence North Korea on the nuclear issue. However, it would be very difficult for China to do that because not only does China need to show North Korea that she has her back, but China is also being pressured by countries like Japan, the United States, and South Korea to make sure nuclear proliferation does not occur in North Korea.

    Recently, China has backed UN sanctions on North Korea. According to another article I read recently, a decade ago, China provided “roughly 80% of North Korea’s total petroleum imports”, a huge percentage of international food aid, and an even greater percentage of foreign investment capital. Therefore, I think putting sanctions on North Korea, even for a short amount of time, can make a significant impact on North Korea’s decision on continuing nuclear research and bomb tests. Also, according to this article, I agree that there will be eyes watching China and how she’s going to deal with the issue. China seems to be siding with the US and other countries by putting sanctions, but I hope that she can come to terms peacefully with North Korea in preventing nuclear proliferation as China is North Korea’s one of the very few trusted allies, and even a seemingly over-confident country might need a friend.

  2. CommentedKlara Auerbach

    The point of this article, although not clearly made until the last paragraph, is, simply enough, that the ball is now in China’s court. However, if that was the author’s main point, it should have been the focus of the article. While his detailing of the current situation in North Korea and the international concerns regarding their nuclear program are helpful and accurate, they are nothing we haven’t heard before.

    The concept that China now holds the reigns of an issue of international concern is something incredibly important to world stage and needs to be argued and discussed more than already established facts.

    China’s position in this situation is highly precarious, to say the least. However, its decisions could turn the tides. America and the Obama administration have not changed from their previous behavior of doing what they have always done and using rhetoric to evoke emotion in the public instead of acting on important matters of national and international concern. While they still support and have voted for sanctions against North Korea, it is clear that the country has not taken the North Korean nuclear threat as seriously as it should.

    Adding sanctions on top of more sanctions is, as this article accurately points out, adding fire to an already kindled flame. Has the UNSC and the international community forgotten that the country runs off an ideology of ‘Juche’ (self-reliance)? By imposing more and more sanctions, the UNSC is enforcing the country’s ill-informed and illogical motto that it doesn’t need the rest of the world to exist.

    China has agreed to these sanctions with the belief that they are in fact helping North Korea. However, this is a clear sign that China is beginning to question its alliance to the unreliable and mysterious nation. China has sway in North Korea- that much is clear. But now it also has incredible sway and power in the international community. China now needs to decide what its top priorities are. It must make some decisions that will show the world that it takes the North Korean nuclear threat seriously and the rest of the global community should be wise to do so as well.

  3. CommentedBruce Wayne

    The North Korea nuclear issue should be of up-most concern to the international community, and action should be taken to resolve this issue. However most actions have been sanctions by the U.S. and North Korea’s ally, China. These have proved ineffective for the sole reason that North Korea chooses to be isolated from the world. As Hill says in the article, “Similarly, threatening North Korea with isolation, the hardy perennial of diplomatic pressuring, does not work, because isolation is exactly what the North Koreans want”. It has become clear to me from what I have read and seen on North Korea, that they are a nation not interested in comprising with the world, and would rather remain a totalitarian dictatorship. This juche, or self-reliance, that North Korea possesses is something that can’t be broken by a single country, but rather by multiple countries. Nations need to come together, regardless of their relationships, and resolve this nuclear issue.

  4. CommentedMaggie Abeles

    The tactic of sitting back and waiting for what China will do, which the article suggests is ideal, will lead to a downfall of diplomacy and allow North Korea to further test the international community’s temper. Obama has indeed done well in his task of informing countries of the threat of NK, but information and rhetoric can only take a country so far—as North Korea has now realized.

    The threats of death and destruction spouting from North Korea cannot be merely undermined by conference and persuasion. In fact, we already tried that. Even so, North Korea (having quit the Six Party Talks in 2009) has articulated that it will agree to yet another round of the talks ONLY if the remaining 5 countries agree to an agenda excluding the issue of dismantling the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear program. Clearly, talking won’t work at this point.

    International pressure will only be felt by North Korea if it gains a backbone. It’s time to start showing North Korea that it’s wading in dangerous waters. The United States has confirmed that it is indeed “fully capable” of taking on the Hermit Kingdom.

    War, though costly, timely, and deadly, is becoming inevitable. Only through the fault of North Korea do countries such as the United States consider war as the only way to halt the continued flourishing of NK’s nuclear program and put an end to the corruption and injustice that exists within the country. The Hermit Kingdom, through its pattern of provocative diplomacy shoves options of compromise and friendly solutions off the table.

    This article merely suggests that we need keep our eye on North Korea, when in fact we are far past the point of being "nervous." Serious action needs to be taken in hopes of saving NK's enemy, the USA, and the rest of the world from one irrational leader's wrath.

  5. CommentedJake Bev

    North Korea's government is violent, and a danger to international security. There is little that can be done to reason with them, and all that is accomplished does not last long. This can be seen by the ease with which they waltzed out of the Non Proliferation Treaty. The international community must realize no amount of treaties signed or sanctions imposed will change N.K.'s unsatiable hunger for nuclear weapons. The world must prepare their defense, and then wait for N.K.'s self destruction to arrive or for positive change to well up from inside its borders. The main objective of the international community in North Korea should be helping the millions of starving citizens that are still under the unfortunate circumstances brought on by the famine that began in 1994. They are the only people in immediate danger of the oppressive North Korean regime.

  6. CommentedK. Hyslop

    Speaking on China and its role in addressing the North Korean nuclear test, Senator Hill hit the nail right on the head. As North Korea’s closest ally, the Chinese are in a position of vital importance and increasing pressure. How they choose to react to North Korea will not only speak volumes of their own government but also how they see themselves as an emerging global superpower. The Chinese are essential in talking North Korea down. We cannot forget this.

    Plus, as Hill referenced, with new leaders entering the CPC the time could not be more apt for a change and step towards more pressing action.

    However, the statement “isolation is exactly what the North Koreans want” could not be farther from the truth. Here we are, after North Korea’s THIRD nuclear test in a decade, still debating the effectiveness of negotiations and sanctions. What Hill proposes, “a program of action aimed at producing a result,” is one that could very well bypass what we’ve come so close to accomplishing. We seem to forget Albright in 2000. We were so close.

    And maybe we have Bush’s “axis of evil” for what has happened since, but to render talks and negotiations “dubious” is where Hill falls flat. His idea that negotiations aren’t the “missing piece[s] to the puzzle” are rash and frankly, seem to be rooted in the idea that direct action is the only way to accomplish diplomacy.

    Unfortunately, so do many other Americans. I hope Hill is right about the Chinese because they may be our only hope.

  7. CommentedS.Mahmud Ali

    Secretary Hills poses a number of questions which cannot be answered with any confidence. Given his antecedents, it is difficult to believe he is not aware of this challenge.

    His emphasis on the fate of the NPT regime is understandable but not entirely straightforward. The government he represented so ably has historically demonstrated a tendency towards eclectic and selective responses to horizontal nuclear proliferation. The first major proliferator, Israel, has not only not faced any sanctions but has, in fact, deepened its alliance with the USA. India, another proliferator, was first punished post-1974, and subsequently, following its 1998 tests, embraced as a strategic partner. Pakistan had sanctioned imposed in 1977 but these were waived following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan two years later. Then, after the Soviet withdrawal, the Pressler Amendment was imposed in September 1990. After Islamabad was dragooned into joining the post-9/11 coalition of the willing, it, too, became a strategic partner. That varied record suggests proliferators face a mixed response depending on what else is happening. This selective application of principles erodes the NPT regime's credibility.

    There is also the question of what anyone - the USA and China included, can do to prevent determined proliferators. America has tried muscular displays of lethal force frequently around the DPRK, to little discernible effect. There is little assurance that more of the same will change North Korean's behaviour.

    Common sense suggests that an attempt to understand the roots of Pyongyang's drivers - profound elite insecurity precipitated by a lack of credible allies in a terribly hostile milieu is key - might be more helpful than doing the same ineffective things again and again.

  8. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I do not really understand the article.
    Why exactly the response to North Korea will say anything about our world?
    Why exactly nuclear weapons are the only ones we should be truly concerned about? No other weapons can cause mass destruction, enough to consider Syria's chemical weaponry for example.
    Nuclear weapons are a bit like when AIDS appeared, everybody thought that was the worst disease, death sentence anybody could acquire when plenty other diseases, acquired through the same transmissions, many times more frequently than AIDS, could be just as unpleasant and dangerous.
    We keep on jumping from band wagon to band wagon, of course North Korea is a problem, but so is Iran, anything that happens in the Middle East, the simmering, fragile European situation, the India-Pakistan nuclear rivalry, the unstoppable economic and financial crisis, growing unemployment and futureless prospects of the youth worldwide, and so on, not to mention pending environmental catastrophes, arguably human generated.
    We have enough on our plate already to judge in what kind of world we live in, and the picture is not pretty, especially as there is nobody else to blame but ourselves.
    Especially the so called "free and democratic" western societies who had the whole world as their oyster until now.
    North Korea at this stage is not other but another circus to draw the attention away from the real problems, which are even threatening of the survival of the human race.

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