The Road to North Korea’s Nuclear Test

Posted in Koreas | 08-Oct-06 | Author: Erik Mobrand

"Aggressive politics, the combination of far-reaching delivering means and some operational nuclear warheads form a serious threat to a great…
"Aggressive politics, the combination of far-reaching delivering means and some operational nuclear warheads form a serious threat to a great part of the world."
North Korea has now established itself as a nuclear power. On 9 October, Pyongyang claimed to have conducted a successful underground test of its nuclear capability. South Korean and other observers have confirmed evidence of the test, although the size of the bomb remains in question. The test comes amidst widespread hope that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would not go through with it. The previous week, Pyongyang announced its intention to test a nuclear weapon. That announcement met with warnings from around the world, including from China and Russia, that carrying out the test would be unacceptable.

World leaders immediately condemned the test. American President George W. Bush spoke on the telephone with leaders in the region for their reactions. The test came as Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was arriving in Seoul for meetings with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, following a landmark trip to Beijing. The DPRK’s nuclear test has elicited rare agreement among the three East Asian neighbors, as all have spoken against it as an international threat. China, Japan, and South Korea claim to be committed to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

While confirmation of the details of the test is pending, the test appears to reveal little that was not already known. Pyongyang has been processing uranium for the past four years, and the refusal of Washington to negotiate gave the DPRK ample time to develop enough plutonium for several bombs. That the DPRK would be interested in conducting a test of its nuclear capability should, in some sense, come as not a great surprise.

Within a day of the test, the United States presented the United Nations Security Council with a draft resolution calling for a set of sanctions on the DPRK. Those sanctions would include an arms embargo, inspection of cargo entering and leaving the DPRK, and a ban on luxury goods. Washington would like the sanctions to be passed under a clause that would make them enforceable by coercion.

The path to October

Pyongyang’s nuclear test followed on the heels of a tense summer and an entire year of failure to restart the six-party talks that were aimed at addressing the North Korean nuclear issue. Early on the morning of 5 July 2006, the DPRK conducted a series of missile tests, firing off seven rockets. These included a long-range Taepodong 2, two medium-range Nodong missiles, and four shorter-range missiles. The Taepodong 2 is thought capable of reaching Alaska when fully developed. This time the long-range missile hardly made it far, crashing some 40 seconds after launch. In 1999 the North Koreans agreed to place a moratorium on missile tests, and the July test was the first breach of the promise.

Tokyo reacted most quickly to news of the missile tests. Enraged by the rocket launches, Japan imposed some economic sanctions on North Korea, and also took measures to limit the entry of DPRK ships and flights into Japan. Japanese food aid to the impoverished nation was also scaled back. Japan is seen as the easiest target for North Korean missiles. Pyongyang’s ability to reach Japan was demonstrated, to great international disapproval, when a Taepodong 1 missile was test-launched over Japan in August 1998.

In the United States the tests coincided, presumably by design, with Independence Day celebrations on the evening of 4 July. The timing adds weight to the suspicion that the tests were an attempt to attract US attention, with the goal of pushing the United States toward agreeing finally to sit down for direct talks with North Korea.

Countries friendly with the DPRK expressed concern about the tests. Two of the missiles landed in Russian waters, angering the DPRK’s northern neighbor. The reaction in Beijing seemed to reflect more concern about how Washington might respond, cautioning all parties to avoid turning to extreme measures. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted as noting that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) hoped “that all the relevant sides can remain calm and restrained and do more things which are conducive to peace and stability.”

A week after the missile tests, South Korea turned down requests for additional food and fertilizer assistance. (However, Seoul did provide emergency aid to North Korea in the aftermath of serious flooding later in July.) The DPRK responded by calling off visits of North Koreans to family members in the South. In those ways, the missile tests contributed to a downturn in inter-Korean relations.

The DPRK’s missile launches, while attracting criticism from all around, were within the bounds of international law. Besides failing to give advanced warning, Kim Jong Il and company were faulted for resorting to ballistic displays to gain leverage in the conflict over the DPRK’s nuclear program. The administration in Washington, meanwhile, continued to repeat that it would not reward “bad behavior.” Conservatives in the US Senate were vocal in exhorting the White House not to give in to North Korean pressures to engage in bilateral talks. The United States insisted that North Korea would need to return to the six-party talks before any further progress could be made.

Erik Mobrand is WSN Editor North East Asia: "The United States, Japan and the international community have plenty to gain…
Erik Mobrand is WSN Editor North East Asia: "The United States, Japan and the international community have plenty to gain from earnest diplomacy"
The talks – attended by China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia, and the United States – ground to a halt last November. Something of a breakthrough in the negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear program was reached in September 2005, when an agreement was signed on the 19th of that month. In the 19 September agreement, all parties acknowledged that the primary goal was for North Korea to abandon its plutonium program. In return, Washington would help set up a light water reactor in the future. Later, American negotiators reneged and stated that even a peaceful nuclear program would be unacceptable. On top of that, the United States revealed North Korea’s counterfeiting activities. Within two months, the September agreement was no longer able to keep the six parties talking.

The UN Security Council

Soon after the missile tests, Japan submitted a letter to the United Nations Security Council pressing for international action in response. Together with the United States and the United Kingdom, Japan presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council demanding the DPRK to terminate the development and testing of ballistic missiles.

Russia and China, which hold veto power on the Security Council, initially sought to block the resolution from being passed. They feared that such measures would create an obstacle in the effort to resume the six-party talks, and preferred a statement from the president of the Security Council, a document that is not legally binding. In the bargain that was reached, a resolution was indeed passed but a clause authorizing the use of force in implementing sanctions on the DPRK was removed. The Security Council resolution passed on 15 July, with approval from both China and Russia.

The resolution states that member countries are prohibited from selling missile or missile technology to the DPRK, as well as from receiving resources from the DPRK related to weapons of mass destruction programs. In the resolution, North Korea is also urged to return to the six-party talks, so that an agreement can be reached as to how the country’s nuclear weapons program can be abandoned. The Security Council reprimanded the DPRK both for breaking its moratorium on missile launches and for failing to provide warning of the tests to neighbors.

Now, in response to the nuclear test, the United States and Japan are seeking the support of China and Russia on a tough Security Council resolution, this time one backed by force. While the two countries seen as friendly with the DPRK have joined international criticism of the nuclear test, it remains to be seen what lengths they will go to in punishing Pyongyang. To date, the Russians and particularly the Chinese have strongly opposed economic sanctions on North Korea.

Tension in China-DPRK relations

There are now clear signs that even Beijing is getting fed up with Pyongyang. China could have abstained when the 15 July UN Security Council resolution was up for vote, but China went ahead and approved the resolution. This measure may indicate something of China’s exasperation with North Korea for conducting the missile tests despite being warned not to do so. With October’s nuclear test, this feeling can only have been deepened.

Washington seems to be pinning its hopes for the six-party talks on Beijing’s ability to persuade the DPRK. Before the missile tests, the United States was reaching out to China to convince its neighbor not to go through with the tests. Because North Korea depends on China for assistance, American officials perceive Beijing to have a degree of leverage over Pyongyang.

But what would China do to persuade the DPRK? Beijing certainly could halt assistance to North Korea – but it wouldn’t. Beijing’s support to North Korea is not offered out of altruism. What China really wants to avoid is economic or political instability in North Korea. Chinese aid is intended to ensure that North Korea does not fall apart, because that would bring chaos to their shared border and to the broader region of northeast China. We cannot expect Beijing to take measures that work precisely against their own interests.

The nuclear test now puts great pressure on Beijing. China’s role soon after the crisis began in late 2002 has been to encourage both Washington and Pyongyang to remain calm, and to prevent any decisive measures from being taken. Prior to the July missile test and again before the nuclear test, leaders in Beijing hoped the DPRK would not cross the line. But because Pyongyang has twice now not heeded the PRC’s warnings, Beijing’s ability to balance its own interests in North Korea with international interests there is severely challenged. It is becoming increasingly difficult for Beijing to echo international condemnation of Pyongyang’s weapons programs, on one hand, and oppose sanctions that are not in Beijing’s own interest, on the other. As world powers respond to the nuclear test, we should expect to see China struggling find a position that does as little as possible to compromise its own interests against its standing in the international community.

China’s leverage over North Korea, then, is not something that China would choose to exercise easily. That means the United States is not going to get far by calling on China to bring Kim Jong Il under control. It also means that tension in the PRC-DPRK relationship is unlikely to lead to a windfall for those hoping to pressure the North Koreans into rejoining the six-party talks. China cannot put its foot down on North Korea, because it would be harming itself.

The United States

"The Taepodong 2 is thought capable of reaching Alaska when fully developed"
"The Taepodong 2 is thought capable of reaching Alaska when fully developed"
All year, Washington’s goal with regard to the DPRK appears to have been to get Pyongyang back into the six-party talks without offering anything to the North Koreans. The missile episode and the nuclear test can be seen as responses to the United States’ failure to maintain its end of the bargain reached in the 19 September 2005 agreement. Under the agreement, the United States had pledged to make good at some point on its promise – made in 1994 and never kept – to assist North Korea in establishing two nuclear power plants. Soon after the September agreement, however, Washington backpedaled and decided that a peaceful nuclear program was out of the question until the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program was dropped.

Around the same time, the United States decided to disclose the results of investigations into currency counterfeiting by North Korea. The investigations had been on-going for years, and the timing of disciplinary action based on them worked to make negotiation with the DPRK all the more difficult. Problematic DPRK bank accounts abroad were frozen, as were others that were not used for criminal activity.

Between 1994 and 2002, Pyongyang had given up its plutonium program as pledged while Washington kept up economic sanctions and dragged its feet on the light water reactors it was supposed to build. The United States had reneged on its promises before the North Koreans began processing uranium in 2002. With Washington’s record of unfulfilled agreements in the DPRK, it is little wonder why Pyongyang feels threatened and resorts to displaying its deterrent capabilities.

American negotiators have continued to speak of North Korean isolation as a source of the country’s problems dealing with the international community. And yet the United States appears to be at the forefront of efforts to alienate the DPRK, ensuring that North Korea will indeed act like an “isolated” nation.

The persisting gap in US-PRC priorities

As Washington pushes for greater contributions from China in resolving the North Korean nuclear problem, the United States still refuses to recognize the gulf that divides American and Chinese priorities on the Korean peninsula. The Washington Post (6 July) quoted a Chinese political scientist as stating that the missile test is primarily a problem for DPRK-United States relations and DPRK-Japan relations, and that “basically it’s not a China problem.”

As stated in the September agreement, China remains committed to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. Beijing also shares Washington’s desire to work toward that goal through the six-party talks. However, that is as far as Beijing is interested in going. While China’s preference would be for the DPRK not to have nuclear weapons, that goal is not Beijing’s top priority in the region.

Above all, China wants the status quo on the Korean peninsula to persist. Instability – either political or economic – in North Korea could be detrimental. Political turmoil in the DPRK could lead to the rise of regime leaning more toward the South – and hence toward the United States. And Beijing certainly does not want an increased American presence next door. Keeping the current North Korean government functioning is China’s priority.

For all its stubbornness, Washington seems unclear about its top priority for the DPRK. Is it an end to the nuclear weapons program? If so, then why not negotiate? If it is regime change, then why bother with six-party talks? The problem is that US behavior reflects two goals to which Washington is wedded: to make North Korea abandon its nuclear program, and to achieve that without offering anything. The second of these clearly stands in the way of the rational pursuit of the first.

Will the United States realize that China’s priorities diverge from its own? Washington’s assumption is that the six-party talks can have the effect of forcing North Korea to give up its nuclear program before the United States even begins dealing bilaterally with the DPRK. China does want the six-party talks to resume as soon as possible. But for Beijing, the talks themselves are the goal. As long as the major players continue talking – and only talking – then China’s interests are preserved. The DPRK’s nuclear test, as international responses to it are formed, could reveal these tensions between the American and Chinese priorities on the Korean peninsula.

Conclusions and recommendations

The good news is that the North Korean nuclear issue is a problem that can be resolved. Further, it can be resolved at low cost to the major parties. What remains to be seen is whether those parties will take the necessary actions to bring the conflict to an end.

Unfortunately for the international community, neither Beijing nor Washington is pursuing an agenda that places international security in the top spot. The world is less safe because Washington refuses to talk with Pyongyang. Nuclear proliferation by North Korea is a growing possibility, as Washington continues to give the DPRK time to pursue its plutonium program. The best scenario would involve going well beyond a resumption of the six-party talks. Negotiators for Washington would sit down with North Korean representatives and hash out a plan for putting an end to the nuclear program, and the United States would begin to fulfill its 1994 promises.

The idea of diplomacy, for one reason or another, has fallen out of fashion in Washington. Time has come to revive diplomacy as a critical means of pursuing national and international security. Decision-makers in the United States need to recognize that negotiation does not mean giving in – and appearing weak – but is a method for achieving one’s goals.

The long-term interests of the United States and its people certainly lie with a non-nuclear Korean peninsula. Washington would be acting in the national interest – and in the world’s – if it were to get over its hang-ups about “giving in” to the negotiation process. In fact, the Bush administration is sacrificing a good deal of American power by not deploying negotiators with a license to negotiate. The administration’s own apparent obsession with maintaining machismo does not balance well against its stated claims of placing priority on security.

Progress might be made if the virtues of diplomacy are rediscovered, especially in Washington. We don’t know that diplomacy will solve the North Korean nuclear problem – but an effort at genuine negotiation has not yet been made. Apart from guessing Pyongyang’s future responses, attempting to negotiate is all that can be done. The United States, Japan, and the international community have plenty to gain from earnest diplomacy, and very little to lose.