The end of ambiguity about Pyongyang's nuclear capacity raises fundamental questions affecting China, the United States, and the future of international non-proliferation strategy. Indirectly, these consequences could actually work to the advantage of the West in its attempts to prevent Iran 'going nuclear'.
European governments have finally decided that diplomatic efforts over Iran's nuclear programme have failed. Six weeks after the expiry of the 31 August UN Security Council deadline for Iran to cease uranium enrichment, they are returning the matter to the UN Security Council where, alongside the United States, they will for a second time this year seek a resolution imposing sanctions.
However, the eruption of the North Korean nuclear crisis over the 8 October testing of an atomic weapon is set to significantly impact attempts to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions. Tehran has so far emulated many aspects of Pyongyang's approach in defying the will of the international community. The most obvious consequence of the test, as many analysts have noted, is that if the wrong signs are given following North Korea's actions it will send a clear message to Iran that it can successfully pursue the acquisition of nuclear weapons with impunity. In this, the North Korean situation has most ominous implications for non-proliferation objectives over Iran.
However, the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programmes are connected in far more ways than one. The end of ambiguity about Pyongyang's nuclear capacity raises fundamental questions affecting China, the United States, and the future of international non-proliferation strategy. Indirectly, these consequences could actually work to the advantage of the West in its attempts to prevent Iran 'going nuclear'.
The Implications for China
The prospect of a nuclear power in the region dramatically alters the security environment in East Asia. The fear is that following Pyongyang’s announcement Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, all Western allies, will feel it necessary to follow suit. The has serious implications for Beijing. A North Korean bomb poses a threat to China indirectly by raising the prospect that it could persuade Japan to arm itself with nuclear weapons too. Japan, with an advanced industrial complex and civilian nuclear power is considered to be only ‘a screws turn’ from a nuclear bomb, and with a new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, the country may well be spurned to change its policy on foregoing nuclear weapons and reassert a position of military strength in the region.
China, North Korea's main political and economic backer, has accordingly been incensed by Pyongyang's actions and has expressed, in an unusually harsh statement, its “resolute opposition” to the “brazen” act which it said “defied the universal opposition of international society”, and backing the need for punitive sanctions in the United Nations Security Council. Yet in spite of its rhetoric China does not wish to see the regime in North Korea fall. A regime collapse would cause hundreds of thousands of people to spill over their northern border into China and bring with them much instability.
China is now stuck on a very narrow path. On the one hand it does not wish to see a nuclear chain reaction in the region, and at the same time to does not wish to see any actions that could lead North Korea to collapse. Yet the outcome of both will be determined primarily not by China but by the United States.
Bolstering the US hand
The United States, though, has different priorities to China. For them the inability to prevent North Korea becoming a nuclear power raises firstly fundamental questions over the credibility and sanctity of the US nuclear shield extended to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. So far all three states have been able to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons because of the United States' security umbrella. If the US can no longer provide for their defence then the nature of their long term relationships with the United States is ultimately at risk.
Secondly, North Korea's successful defiance raises questions for America's entire international non-proliferation strategy.A debate in Washington will now be set in motion concerning the very course down which the United States has so far embarked on in dealing with non-proliferation over North Korea and Iran. In particular, the United States will be strongly compelled to take decisive action in confronting the North Korean threat in an effort to set an example to Iran and any other state thinking about acquiring nuclear weapons.
The outcome of this debate will have serious ramifications for China's concerns about a nuclear arms race in the region and the implementation of any measures that would seriously threaten the North Korean regime. The US has said it is “not going to live with a nuclear North Korea”, and unlike China it would not be averse to seeing a collapse of the regime. Chinese interests will thus in essence become beholden to US actions.
The Knock-on Effect for Iran
Until now the ability to coerce Iran to forgo the enrichment programme that the world suspects is intended for nuclear weapons purposes has been held hostage by Russian and Chinese refusal to back-up diplomacy with any willingness to support enforcement measures in the United Nations Security Council. In a post Iraq environment where UN Security Council authority is of paramount importance this opposition has effectively brought diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the nuclear crisis to a standstill.
Furthermore, in confronting Iran, the US and EU have not only been confronted with the opposition of China and Russia, but with a Russia and China supported by a tide of global public opinion vehemently opposed to pre-emptive military action in the wake of the Iraq war. Pyongyang's nuclear test will have helped bring home a realisation of the real threat posed by nuclear proliferation.
A more amenable China in combination with a turning of international opinion would tip the balance over Iran. If the US can get China on board and international public opinion begins to turn, an isolated Russia would find it difficult to maintain its position.
Of course, this is largely dependent on the effect that events will have on China. It is possible that Beijing will calculate that in fact the US needs Chinese support on North Korea as much as ever, and will therefore feel no need to make any extra compromises on sanctions over Iran. However, it is also just possible that North Korea's nuclear test may in fact unleash a series of consequences that prove a blessing in disguise for the West's position as it returns to the United Nations Security Council to seek incremental sanctions under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.
By Mark Thomas, Middle East and North Africa Programme, RUSI
The views and comments offered here do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute