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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:04 03/09/2007
October 16, 2006

The Reaction to Pyongyang's Nuclear Test: A New Step Forward?

Chadwick I. Smith (Consultant based in Japan)

After years of speculation regarding the existence of nuclear weapons, North Korea announced that it conducted a "nuclear test" on October 9. Initially there was some doubt whether a test actually occurred; however, the recent US confirmation of radioactive debris seems to substantiate the original claim. Unfortunately, this indicates that the Six Party Talks and its predecessor, the Agreed Framework, were fruitless and did not prevent Pyongyang from acquiring nuclear status. A successful test could have a number of implications on regional security; therefore it is critical that regional actors work together in a concerted manner in order to prevent escalation of the situation. Could the recent UNSC unanimous vote for sanctions be the indication that regional actors are finally willing to cooperate?

As many experts have stated in the past, a policy of isolation and sanctions deprives Pyongyang of what it most desperately craves, which is recognition. North Korea's primary goal is regime survival and from their standpoint, a nuclear deterrent is a perfectly logical reaction for a state that believes its concerns are not adequately being addressed and also fears for its very existence. Therefore, after its July 4 missile tests went largely unnoticed and the focus remained on the Middle East, North Korea felt it had nothing to lose by conducting a test.

This now makes diplomatic disarmament much more difficult. Since North Korea's admission to a clandestine program in October 2002, the Six Party Talks were only one of many possible options for creative diplomacy. Yet, the Bush administration's North Korea policy has been incoherent and unorganized. It has swayed from a hard-line approach to a diplomatic approach with its insistence on only dealing with North Korea in the context of multilateral talks. Furthermore, Japan's consistent push for sanctions and its strong support for a punitive resolution following the missile tests in July indicated that it also has been unwilling to seek any alternative solutions.

The refusal to engage in any proactive measures such as increased economic cooperation or high level visits has only hardened North Korea's resolve and allowed it to build its arsenal making disarmament more costly to other states and more rewarding for itself. The continued escalation of the threat may well benefit Pyongyang as it allows it to remain isolated and prevents any change in its political system.

Newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will most likely take aggressive measures as anti-North Korean sentiment in Japan is high and his administration is known for its conservative stance. In September, Japan imposed sanctions that targeted 15 North Korea related organizations (manufacturers, trading companies, and banks) and has now adopted an additional set of measures (ban on ships, imports, and citizens from entering Japan) to isolate North Korea at least economically in the aftermath of its nuclear test. Some feel that Tokyo could easily develop offensive weapons, including the possibility of a nuclear deterrent, and this event therefore has the potential to instigate an arms race and a possible revision of Article 9. While the US may support Japan's stance, it would not be welcome by China and South Korea due to Tokyo's militaristic past.

Although China, South Korea and Russia may initially criticize the test and even vote for sanctions, North Korea is anticipating that their warnings will only be verbal with no serious admonition. They are very hesitant to exert real concerted pressure on Pyongyang for fear of a state collapse, which would severely strain their economies. If these states, specifically China took the lead in condemning Pyongyang and subsequently demonstrated solidarity by strict adherence to a firm and binding UNSC resolution, the likelihood of a future diplomatic resolution would increase, yet if their reluctant stance continues, the future is bleak. Without strong unity, only two immediate options remain; acknowledge Pyongyang as a nuclear power or starve it into collapse, both of which are not viable. This will ultimately be a test of China's influence over North Korea and whether it is truly interested in disarmament on the Korean peninsula.

The US and Japan may feel they now have little choice but to refuse any compromise with Pyongyang. The concern is that if they act in a conciliatory manner, it will send a message to rogue states and terrorist organizations that a nuclear weapon is a necessary precondition to any negotiation and an easy route to recognition. Conversely, a military strike would prove disastrous for East Asia and therefore the options to resolve this matter are now severely limited.

Although strong action may be necessary to prevent a "domino effect" of nuclear proliferation, it also has the potential to significantly worsen the situation. History has demonstrated that threats and demands will not intimidate North Korea. The nuclear test was a strategic attempt by Pyongyang to exploit the divisions in East Asia and to create a front that divides China, Russia, South Korea, and the US, Japan. As long as this front exists and military action remains an implausible option, North Korea can successfully extract concessions from both sides while maintaining its isolation.

The question may now arise; what will satisfy North Korea in its demands for recognition? That answer has become even more difficult as Pyongyang's two pronged strategy of stalled negotiations and weapons development has prepared it for just this type of situation. Unless there is a united front, Pyongyang will go on to claim it wishes for peace and an end to hostility while at the same time claiming it must defend itself with something like demonstrating it has the capability to launch a nuclear tipped missile.

The inability to foresee the magnitude of this situation and prevent it has destabilized the region. It also has the potential to seriously hinder any future diplomatic attempts at crisis resolution with other potential nuclear threats. Sadly, the diplomatic failure to constrain North Korea's nuclear ambitions now leaves very few options for a cooperative disarmament agreement. The general consensus remains that something must be done; hopefully, the nuclear test will be the impetus for the adoption of a truly united effort against the continued development of nuclear weapons and their proliferation. In this sense, the UNSC unanimous vote for sanctions, supported by China, is a step forward if it revives diplomatic efforts and avoids military action. However, the real test will be whether all states can cooperate to enforce these measures and eventually spur future dialogue.

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