World powerless to stop North Korea
By Santaro Rey
North Korea's decision to carry out its second nuclear test on Monday could
have far-reaching consequences, if South Korea and Japan conclude that nothing
can be done to persuade Pyongyang to denuclearize. Under such circumstances,
developing their own nuclear weapons might become increasingly desirable for
Seoul and Tokyo.
North Korea shook the world - literally - in the early hours of May 25,
carrying out its second nuclear test, at a site in the northeast of the
country. Significantly, the latest detonation was much more powerful than its
first nuclear test, carried out on October 9, 2006, which was widely believed
to have fizzled. The Russian military and the South's Defense Ministry
estimated Monday's blast to have yielded 20 kilotons, or roughly the same as
atomic bomb that destroyed the Japanese city of Nagasaki at the end of World
War II in 1945.
That North Korea decided to conduct a second nuclear test was not surprising.
Pyongyang's official media had been warning since April 29 that it might
conduct a test, as an expression of its displeasure at the United Nations
Security Council's criticism of its failed satellite launch (in reality a test
of its long-range Taepodong 2 missile) on April 5. Nonetheless, the test came
sooner than expected, and unlike its predecessor, Pyongyang did not provide
official advance notice in its state-controlled media.
Factors driving the test North Korea's decision to test the bomb likely had several motivations.
Firstly, given that the October 2006 test was widely considered to have
fizzled, yielding less than 1 kiloton, Pyongyang needed its own reassurances
that it had a fully functioning nuclear weapon. The North's official Korean
Central News Agency (KCNA) confirmed as much, when it stated, "The test helped
satisfactorily settle the scientific and technological problems arising in
further increasing the power of nuclear weapons."
In the absence of such confirmation, the regime of Kim Jong-il could not be
certain that it had sufficient deterrent to repel any external aggression. In
addition, the North also needed to make a credible demonstration of its nuclear
arsenal to the major powers in the region that it considers hostile, namely the
United States, South Korea and Japan. Just to reinforce the message, Pyongyang
also test-fired several short-range missiles off its east coast, facing Japan.
Nonetheless, international observers still doubt that North Korea has the means
to attach nuclear warheads to its array of missiles.
The second reason for North Korea's nuclear test was to put the country at the
top of the US's international agenda, at a time when the global economic
recession and the war in Afghanistan have emerged as its most pressing
challenges. Pyongyang had sought to do this with its April 5 Taepodong 2
missile test, but the world's reaction was somewhat muted. As to why the North
craves the US's attention, the main reason is to extract economic and
diplomatic concessions. Ultimately, there are reasons to believe that Pyongyang
seeks a grand bargain with Washington in which it would be granted diplomatic
relations and economic assistance while receiving official acceptance of its
However unrealistic that may sound, North Korea has seen how nuclear tests
conducted by India and Pakistan in 1998, initially condemned by the
international community, were later overlooked as the West came to see those
two countries as too important to ignore. Pakistan became the West's frontline
ally in the "war on terror" after September 11, 2001, and received billions of
dollars in aid, while India's rising economic power made it unrealistic to
marginalize it. Unfortunately for Pyongyang, it has nothing to offer the rest
of the world. Thus, its brinkmanship if anything makes it harder for the US to
offer North Korea meaningful rewards.
The third reason for the nuclear test - albeit somewhat more speculative - is
that Kim Jong-il is seeking to reassert his authority after months of illness
since last summer. This may also have been a motivation for the Taepodong 2
test in April. Kim's illness has raised heightened uncertainty about his
succession, with most observers anticipating his third son, Kim Jong-un, will
eventually succeed him.
However, it is more likely that a military-dominated collective leadership
centered around the National Defense Commission (NDC) - the highest
decision-making body in North Korea - would fill the vacuum if Kim senior
exited the scene. The NDC was expanded to 13 members in early April at the
first session of the North's new parliament, and all its members' photos were
published in the North's official media, underscoring their rising prominence.
In light of this, Pyongyang may well be signaling that there will be no let-up
in its hardline policy in the event of a leadership transition.
US and allies have no levers
Rhetoric aside, the US and its allies have no realistic means with which to
punish North Korea. Military action is widely considered unthinkable. This is
not merely because the US is militarily stretched in Afghanistan and Iraq, nor
is it because the North could retaliate using its nuclear weapons. It is also
because Pyongyang has massive conventional weaponry, including a 1.1
million-strong army (the world's fifth-largest), 180,000-strong special forces
(the world's largest such force), and thousands of artillery pieces and short-
and medium-range missiles capable of raining destruction on South Korea and
Moreover, North Korea has always insisted that its nuclear arsenal is for
deterrence purposes. Unless Pyongyang is caught red-handed selling nuclear
weapons to terrorists groups or anti-Western states such as Iran, the US, South
Korea and Japan would struggle to find a casus belli against the North.
Tighter sanctions are often cited as a potential lever against North Korea. Yet
the truth is that the communist state is already subject to so many sanctions
that any new ones would largely be meaningless. In any case, Pyongyang has
chosen a course of isolation for itself and has willingly moved to cut off
joint projects with South Korea, such as the Kaesong Industrial Park, where
southern companies manufacture goods using low-cost northern labor.
With the US, South Korea and Japan largely powerless, attention has naturally
turned to China to punish the North. Since Beijing is Pyongyang's biggest
source of aid and investment, it has the ability to strangle its neighbor into
submission. Yet China would never do this, since doing so would risk triggering
the very collapse of the North which it so fears.
A putative collapse there would result in millions of North Koreans fleeing
into China, thus boosting the strength of the ethnic Korean population already
there, and adding to local unemployment problems. Furthermore, Beijing does not
wish to see instability in the North that could lead to US military
intervention so close to its border.
Thus, despite China's official criticism of North Korea's nuclear test, and its
apparent desire to play a more responsible role in the international arena,
punitive measures are unlikely. Indeed, there were unconfirmed rumors on May 25
that Pyongyang had given Beijing advance notice of the nuclear test. If true,
this means at best that China was unable to stop North Korea. At worst, China
might have secretly welcomed the test, for it makes the US and its allies look
While the major powers may have run out of options for dealing with North
Korea, the same is also true for Pyongyang. Its policy of testing missiles
and/or nuclear weapons is now becoming familiar fare to international
policymakers. A nuclear test is arguably the regime's strongest card, and it
has already been played twice.
Moreover, since its nuclear arsenal is limited, Pyongyang cannot test nuclear
weapons too often without exhausting its supply. Furthermore, while detonating
nuclear bombs clearly ups the ante, the world has long learned to live with a
nuclear North Korea. This works in Pyongyang's favor in that it represents de
facto acceptance of its nuclear arsenal. But it also means that Pyongyang is
less able to orchestrate a crisis by threatening nuclear tests, or even by
carrying them out.
The bigger issue: Nuclear dominoes
The bigger question is whether North Korea's nuclear test will lead to growing
calls for South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons. South
Korea had a nuclear weapons program in the 1970s, during the administration of
military strongman Park Chung-hee, but was forced to abandon it under US
However, in the early 2000s, South Korea admitted that its scientists had
carried out experiments with nuclear materials. For its part, Japan recently
reaffirmed its long-held three non-nuclear principles of not producing,
possessing or allowing the introduction to its territory of nuclear weapons,
after former finance minister Shoichi Nakagawa stated that Japan should at
least debate whether to go nuclear.
Nonetheless, in recent years it has become less taboo for Japanese politicians
to raise the nuclear debate, with figures as high-ranking as former opposition
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader Ichiro Ozawa warning in April 2002 that
Japan could build thousands of nuclear weapons.
Significantly, Ozawa was speaking in reference to counterbalancing China, not
North Korea. Moreover, although Ozawa was recently forced to resign as head of
the DPJ owing to a corruption scandal, his influence in the party will linger.
Ozawa is an advocate of a more independent and assertive Japan, and if the DPJ
wins general elections that must be held by October, it could introduce subtle
changes to Japan's defense policy. Although a nuclear Japan is not imminent, it
has the nuclear technology and a space program, which could be combined into a
long-range nuclear arsenal.
For more than 60 years, South Korea and Japan have been protected from either
the Soviet Union, China or North Korea by a US nuclear umbrella. However, if
Seoul or Tokyo were to ever experience doubts about the reliability of this
deterrent, they could eventually embark on a nuclear weapons build-up. Although
US presidents have warned North Korea that using nuclear weapons would lead to
their own destruction, Seoul and Tokyo cannot guarantee that Washington would
be willing to use nuclear weapons to avenge the loss of any Korean or Japanese
cities if the North had the means to attempt a nuclear strike on the US itself.
Ultimately, a nuclear South Korea and Japan could transform the geostrategic
landscape of East Asia, and possibly the world. It could hasten the end of US
hegemony in Asia, since the two would become less dependent on the US to
guarantee their security.
There would be less need for US bases in the region, and Seoul and Tokyo might
become a lot more assertive. Meanwhile, China would at the very least be
uncomfortable with a nuclear South Korea. One reason is that Seoul could become
more assertive about future territorial disputes concerning the ancient kingdom
of Koguryo (Goguryeo), which incorporated large tracts of China and Korea.
But the bigger reason is that a nuclear South Korea might encourage Taiwan to
develop nuclear weapons for fear of being left behind in the nuclear race. For
China, a nuclear Taiwan would be intolerable, for it would make it easier for
the island to declare independence from the mainland without fear of
retribution if the Taiwanese people's desire arose. Finally, China would be
especially concerned about a nuclear Japan, since Tokyo is Beijing's most
formidable geopolitical rival in East Asia and a potential check on its
self-proclaimed peaceful rise.