North Korea’s nuclear gamble

Monday, 9 October 2006 - 7:50pm IST
While it has been known for long that NKorea has nuclear weapons, a test demonstrates the capability, even if it's a partial success.

Pyongyang had little to lose by carrying out a nuclear test. Who’s next?

Within hours after leaders of China and Japan issued a strong if unique statement in Beijing declaring last Saturday that a “North Korean nuclear test is unacceptable,” Pyongyang announced that it had undertaken its much threatened intention to carry out a nuclear test.

While it has been known for a long time that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, a test openly demonstrates that capability, even if it is a partial success.

This clearly makes it the ninth state with nuclear weapons in the world, and the seventh in Asia (after the United States — a de-facto Asian nuclear weapons state, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel).

Last week North Korea had issued a strong threat to carry out the test, probably alarmed by the impending visit by the new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to China, the first such in five years, and the prospects of reducing tensions and increasing cooperation between China and Japan.

It is easy to condemn North Korea for what it has done, but the greatest challenge now for the international community, especially the United States, is how to accept and live with the situation.

We have to recognise that confrontationist diplomacy has its limitations. And these limitations become acute when it is recognised that, in this case, the military options were even less attractive than diplomatic accommodation. After all, the core of North Korea’s strength ironically lies in its utter weakness as a state. It had nothing to lose except its poverty.

For the US and its allies, the military option against North Korea was never a viable option from the very beginning because of the consequences of such a choice which would have severely affected South Korea and Japan adversely (after all, Seoul is within North Korean conventional artillery range).

Thus the only possible option was the diplomatic route. Here the alternative of pursuing the six-nation dialogue came too late with too little being offered on the table. On the other hand, economic and trade sanctions, which probably the international community will seek now, would create new challenges for China which provides the bulk of food and oil to North Korea since their restriction has great potential of leading to worsening of internal socio-economic situation and exodus of refugees to China (with some to South Korea and even Japan). China was given the lead in the six-nation diplomacy; but that has not produced results.

Curiously, North Korea’s nuclearisation is likely to increase Iran’s leverages in its ongoing confrontation with the West, and hence serves the purpose of countries that wish to see the weakening of American influence in world affairs.

This also needs to be seen in relation to the recent war between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah, which has boosted Tehran’s confidence and ability to influence security in West Asia. And that is one reason why the Arab countries were seeking an early ceasefire to contain potential after-shocks. But all eyes are going to be focused on East Asia, and on the responses of Japan and the United States.

Contrary to earlier speculations, even a prime minister who seeks greater role for Japan, the country is unlikely to take the extreme step of moving in any definitive manner toward its own nuclearisation. Abe apparently set out for Beijing and Seoul to strengthen these relations to balance Beijing’s tilt toward Pyongyang. At the same time Tokyo may be expected to seek strengthening of US-Japan alliance with Washington accepting greater burden while Japan would use the opportunity to move further (and possibly a little faster) toward becoming a “normal” country. In today’s complex world this would require a lot of tight-rope walking by many countries.

One final point. The irony is that the roots of North Korea’s nuclearisation lie in the similarity of approach to nuclear and missile proliferation by China and its partners. North Korea obtained its ballistic missiles technology from China; and then bartered it to China’s strategic partner Pakistan in return for nuclear technology and materials which the latter had been receiving from China since the mid-1970 in a nuclear round-robin.

When the world found out, the focus was shifted to Dr AQ Khan in a country where even elected Prime Ministers don’t move without the army’s go ahead. But the central point is: what happens to nuclear proliferation in future? And now that the ninth position is confirmed, which is likely to be the tenth nuclear state?

The writer is Director, Centre for Strategic & International Studies, New Delhi.

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