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Keeping Calm on North Korea

CANBERRA – North Korea’s latest nuclear test is bad news, both for Northeast Asia and for a world that needs to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons. But international overreaction – with responses that raise rather than lower the temperature, and push the region closer to a nuclear arms race – would make bad news even worse.

“Keep Calm and Carry On” – as the British government famously urged its citizens in 1939 – is advice that often lends itself to parody. But it is what needs to happen now.

North Korea’s latest action follows behavior over the last decade that makes Iran look positively restrained in comparison. It walked away from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003; resisted serious negotiations within the framework of the Six-Party Talks established that year by the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan; tested nuclear explosive devices in 2006 and 2009 in breach of a global moratorium; conducted a series of increasingly provocative missile tests; ignored United Nations Security Council resolutions and sanctions; sank a South Korean navy ship and shelled one of its islands in 2010; and maintained a steady flow of belligerent rhetoric.

All of this has jarred regional nerves yet again, in South Korea and particularly in Japan. There is new talk about the resources that may need to be mobilized to counter what is perceived as an increasingly sophisticated threat. It is still not permissible in polite company to talk about these frontline states acquiring their own nuclear weapons. But putting US weapons back into South Korea; acquiring real missile capability; allowing the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel; moving closer to breakout capability – all of these steps now have their advocates, and these voices will grow louder.