North Korea tests a Nuke

by Peter

9 October 2006, 1339 EDT

North Korea announced that it had tested a nuclear device last night. Though initial reports are still a bit cautious, it seems pretty clear from the global reaction that this was in fact some sort of nuclear test. You can see the seismic event catalogued here, click on the red dot in North Korea to see the event of magnitude 4.2 in the northwest of North Korea (and thanks to the current student who pointed out this cool website).

This is, needless to say, a significant event, one that substantially and forever changes Northeast Asia. The initial reactions to the test all condemn it. The Post also has good coverage of this.

Interesting things about the test: It happens on the 9th anneversary of Kim Jong Il taking power (assuming the formal role of leader after mourning his father for a few years) in North Korea. It happens as new Japanese PM Abe is visiting China and South Korea. It also happens as the US is very bogged down in nuclear diplomacy with Iran and in Iraq.

The immediate analysis all points out that this is a bad thing, that the relevant parties will go to the security council in an attempt to somehow sanction North Korea, and that it will increase pressure on Japan to further militarize, as well as increase pressure on Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to all develop their own nuclear weapons. The conventional wisdom is that this also puts China in a tough spot. China has been North Koreas supposed ally, and the DPRK told China about the test ahead of time (and China condemned it). China’s border with North Korea is the source of nearly all of its international trade, its energy, and its economic links to the outside world.

Two notes:
First, this puts the US in quite a bind. While this test is not all “Bush’s fault,”–all of the 6-parties share some degree of “blame,” the Bush Administration has a special responsibility for the test. North Korea still regards the US as its principle enemy, and its developing its nuclear program with the US in its sights. All DPRK willingness to talk about its nuclear program has focused on diplomacy with the US. When Bush entered office, there was still the Agreed Framework that had frozen the DPRK nuclear program for 6+ years. Highly imperfect, it nevertheless kept the North Korean nuclear program on hold. In many ways, this is the ultimate negative feedback of the Bush Doctrine. By declaring North Korea part of the Axis of Evil, continuing hostile rhetoric toward North Korea, and then invading Iraq, North Korea most likely figures that the only way to survive the pending confrontation with the US is to have its own nuke. Now, we may not have any intention of invading North Korea, but we haven’t done a good job of signaling that to the North Koreans. Now the Administration has said it “won’t tolerate” a nuclear North Korea. Well, what exactly does that mean? We’re not in a good position to do anything militarly (and, now that they are a nuclear power, we must assume they have another nuke that could be used in the event of military action). So, what do we do?

Second, there is great irony in how all of this is playing out. This will come before the security council at some point today, and there is sure to be a push for sanctions, and this will land squarely on China’s doorstep. In the past, they have held a firm line discouraging North Korea’s adventurous behavior, but also discouraging the rest of the world (led by the US) from placing really harsh sanctions on North Korea, for fear it might collapse. In many ways, the problem is that the world has long been more afraid of North Korea’s weakness much more than its strength. Even now, it remains to be seen how tough China and, to a lesser extent Russia, will be willing to be at the UNSC. The DPRK has achieved the most powerful weapon in the world, it has joined the elite club of nuclear powers, it has a million man army, and yet the world still fears its weakness more than its strength. Its amazing how this has played out. The US, for all of its bold talk and actions, has relatively little punative leverage on North Korea. The US already has full sanctions on North Korea and has cracked down on North Korea’s illicit activity (particularly counterfiet US currency). There’s not much more the US can do. Some have mentioned a Naval Blockade, but that’s a bold step that can easily lead to escalation and war– you don’t go down that road lightly unless you’re prepared to back it up with force in case things go bad. South Korea has more leverage– it can and probably will cut its economic assistance and shutter the mutual development projects in the Kaesong district. But, the real leverage lies in China, which can close the border and cut of North Korea’s energy, food, and other imports. The fear is that such actions would prompt refugees and collapse.

So, what to do? A nuclear North Korea may not be “tolerable” but the US doesn’t have a whole lot of leverage to make it otherwise unless we’re willing to go all the way on this one (as in be ready to credibly threaten war with the DPRK-all options, such as blockade, need to have this behind them to work)– and I just don’t think that we are at this point.

Its quite possible that we’re all going to have to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea, and that’s not a happy thought.

More as it develops….