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Nuclear North Korea: Time to Get Tough?

Tuesday 12 February 2013 by Dr John Swenson-Wright, Head, Asia Programme
   

North Korea's announcement of its successful carrying out of a 'high value' nuclear test has raised acute concerns within the international community about a renewed and possible enhanced threat to regional and global security.

Update: China Talks Tough Over North Korea, The Guardian, February 2013

For now, the discernible facts suggest that Pyongyang may have materially enhanced its ability to threaten its neighbours, although it remains debatable how pronounced the actual threat is. North Korea has stated that it has produced a miniaturized 'higher yield, smaller, lighter atomic device' – a claim which, if true, represents a step-change in the strategic threat that the North poses to the region. Such new technology could in principle allow the North to deploy a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile that could reach as far afield as Japan, and possibly the continental United States.

Furthest advancement yet?

For now the data from the test remains inconclusive. International monitors in Vienna have interpreted the seismic data from the test site as indicating an explosion of magnitude 4.9, indicating a possible nuclear explosion of 6-7 kilotones in size. North Korea’s previous test in 2009 was on a smaller or comparable scale. Unambiguously establishing the existence of a nuclear test, as opposed to a conventional explosion capable of producing considerable seismic activity, requires the identification of tell-tale nuclear isotopic traces and for now this has not been possible. Consequently, it may be the case that Pyongyang, although it could have tested a more powerful device, may also be engaged in a deliberate game of bluff as a means of enhancing the credibility of its nuclear deterrent.

Equally ambiguous and unresolved is the question of the nature of any likely nuclear reaction and the material basis for the test. The North's past tests in 2006 and 2009 involved low-yield plutonium based bombs. In advance of today's tests, there were fears that it would involve high-enriched uranium. If this were the case, and given the country's deposits of naturally occurring uranium and evidence of an advanced uranium reprocessing programme, Pyongyang would potentially have access to a substantially expanded stockpile of nuclear devices.

A risk to the region?

Notwithstanding these ambiguities, the international reaction has been swift and categorical. President Obama has labelled the test as 'highly provocative' and his criticism has been matched by condemnations from South Korea, Japan, Russia and the UK. The reasons for this are easy to discern: North Korea's actions are a defiance of past UN Security Council resolutions; not only does a nuclear-equipped North Korea pose an existential threat to its neighbours, but it also represents a credible proliferation risk, either by trading its bombs and fissile material on the international market or through the risk of regime collapse and the attendant possibility that the North's nuclear assets might fall into the wrong hands.

Confronting the North

A new UN Security Council Resolution might have the comforting effect of underlining the resolve of the international community, but it would, on past record, have little impact on the North's actual behaviour. 

North Korea remains relatively isolated from the world and therefore denial of economic opportunities for wider international contact would not substantially punish the Pyongyang elite and at best would undermine the well-being of ordinary North Koreans.

The only state with potential leverage over the North is China. Under the new leadership of Xi Jinping, there has been signs of growing Chinese irritation with North Korea and the rhetorical response to the test has been uncharacteristically pointed and critical. But, China needs to be judged by its actions rather than its words, and the Chinese preference seems to be to push for a renewal of diplomacy via the Six Party Talks process, rather than any serious commitment to impose pain on the North Korean leadership. The reason for this is the Chinese desire to avoid destabilizing the fledgling new administration in the North and to limit the risk of regime collapse and a power vacuum emerging on the peninsular.

One possible incentive for China to take a tougher position on the North Korean nuclear issue might be Chinese concerns that a more belligerent and strategically capable North Korea will provide a rationale for conservative politicians and defence planners in South Korea and, especially, in Japan to push for a more expansive and assertive defence policy that would potentially threaten China’s strategic interests.

Already in the more conservative posture adopted by Prime Minister Abe in Japan there are signs that this trend is a real one. Clashes between Beijing and Tokyo over the Senkaku or Daiyoutai islands are a worrying development leading some observers to warn that territorial tensions, married with rising nationalism in all of the key countries in Northeast Asia, together with competition to secure access to increasingly scarce natural resources might tip over into a new regional conflagration.

In this sense, the one glimmer of optimism in the current crisis is that a more belligerent and combative North Korea that seeks to play its 'nuclear card' more provocatively may act as a catalyst for Chinese diplomatic pragmatism. This would not merely lower tensions on the Korean peninsula, but also limit the prospect of a damaging arms race in the region, while enhancing China's stature as a 'responsible stakeholder' both regionally and globally.

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More

China Talks Tough Over North Korea
The Guardian, John Swenson-Wright, February 2013

New Faces, Old Tensions
The World Today, John Swenson-Wright, February 2013

North Korea's Nuclear Testing Generates Diminishing Returns
Expert Comment, Heather Williams, January 2013

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Nuclear North Korea: Time to Get Tough?
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Tuesday 12 February 2013
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