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North Korea’s nuclear tests: a sign of things to come?

Commentary, 26 May 2009
Global Security Issues, Pacific
North Korea’s most recent nuclear testing has provoked international outrage, but the challenges here come with a foreboding of an ‘American strategic disaster’ further afield.

North Korea’s most recent nuclear testing has provoked international outrage, but the challenges here come with a foreboding of an ‘American strategic disaster’ further afield.

Dr Jonathan Eyal, Director of International Security Studies, RUSI

North Korea’s latest nuclear test has been met with a wave of international outrage, UN Security Council emergency meetings and a flurry of political consultations. And, just as predictably, the ultimate result was not very encouraging: a new UN Security Council resolution, a few statements warning that what North Korea has done is ‘unacceptable’, yet little action. Nevertheless, behind all this diplomatic noise lurk some horrible realities. The entire system of deterrence which governed relations between nuclear powers for over half a century appears to be melting down. The proliferation of nuclear weapons is now an established fact; what North Korea has done is precisely what Iran is seeking to achieve as well. But nobody has a workable policy to prevent these ominous developments. In short, the world’s nuclear future is now set to become predictably unpredictable.

We know next to nothing about the way decisions are taken inside North Korea and Iran, the two states currently seeking to acquire the bomb. But we do know that they are impoverished, that they share a siege mentality about the world, and that they had a history of sending millions of people to certain death in previous conflicts. If they go nuclear, the chances of a miscalculation will grow exponentially. So, the world is not facing just the emergence of two new nuclear countries which, over time, will learn the rules of the game, but the rise of new actors who very much reject established theories of deterrence.

Threats and Persuasion

The usual answer to this problem was to offer such nations security guarantees, in exchange for their pledge not to develop the bomb, while threatening them with isolation if they persisted. Furthermore, in a nod to common sense and basic justice, the current nuclear powers have also offered to cut their own arsenals. Indeed, senior US officials are now openly dreaming about a time when nuclear weapons could be abolished altogether.

The strategy made sense but as the case of North Korea now shows, it doesn’t work. In the last two decades, Pyongyang dealt with three US administrations of different political colours. It was offered financial inducements or battered by economic sanctions, threatened and cajoled at various times.

Yet none of these prevented the country from continuing its nuclear march. And for a simple reason: whatever the world offers North Korea now, the North Koreans assume they would get more once they join the nuclear club. Security guarantees would be more meaningful once the country possesses the bomb. And financial inducements may be even sweeter when Pyongyang bargains from a position of strength. It is a logic which Iran is also likely to follow.

Furthermore, the entire process of negotiations with nations which seek to acquire the bomb is predicated on the assumption that Western intelligence services are able to assess the situation inside these countries. Talks are most effective when a nation is still vulnerable, before its nuclear programme is fully developed.

But the intelligence services’ record on assessing a country’s military progress remains awful. Although everyone knew that Israel, India and Pakistan were developing nuclear weapons, the sheer speed of these programmes took everyone by surprise. The same appears to have happened with North Korea. The latest underground nuclear test came faster and was, apparently, bigger than anyone predicted.

People inside the US intelligence community must surely now wonder whether they are not committing the same mistake with Iran. For, although the general assessment is that Iran is still ’years away’ from producing a bomb, no spying agency can ultimately account for human ingenuity.

A Dry Run

In many respects, the North Korean episode is just a ’dry-run’ for the much greater confrontation with Iran. US President Barack Obama has yet to formally launch diplomatic talks with Teheran. Yet, as Obama’s critics will point out, why should these talks succeed, when similar efforts in North Korea failed?

The North Korean crisis also illustrates another awkward fact that, despite all the soothing noises, the US cannot count on either Russia or China to halt the process of proliferation. North Korea was subjected to the so-called ‘Six Party Talks’, involving not only the US, but also China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. In theory, this was a perfect combination of both neighbours and great powers; regional stakeholders and global policemen. But China, on which the North Korean economy ultimately depends, proved unable to stop Pyongyang from pursuing its nuclear quest. And, although the Chinese are apparently furious about the latest nuclear test, Beijing does not propose to do much about this. Russia’s record is even shoddier: apart from taking a seat at the top negotiating table, Moscow had little idea on what it wanted to do. If China and Russia proved unable to stop North Korea, what are the chances for US-Chinese-Russian cooperation over Iran, as President Obama hopes to achieve? Probably not very much; even if the US-Iranian future talks fail, and even if everyone accepts that they failed because of Iran’s intransigence, it is hard to believe that China or Russia would swing behind the US, and consent to greater diplomatic pressure on Teheran.

A nuclear North Korea may be a calamity, but it will not knock the US out of Asia. However, a nuclear Iran will amount to an American strategic disaster, not something any US administration is prepared to contemplate. So, the real impact of the North Korean developments is that the US will have to dust off its military options on Iran. Few believe that these could work. But not many believe that diplomacy alone can deliver either.

Mr Obama may be the first US leader to openly contemplate a nuclear-free world (Ronald Reagan also did so, but briefly, and in private). Sadly, Obama may also be the first American president to grapple with a world in which a growing number of countries start treating the bomb as a ‘normal’ weapon, to be used in future conflicts.

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Becoming A Nuclear Power: North Korea on the Edge


The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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