THE NORTH KOREANS are getting better with their bombs; or so it would appear from details surrounding their latest test of a nuclear device. Experts will examine the available data over the coming weeks to determine (if they can) the fissile material used in the bomb, its likely size, and whether or not it used the kind of technology that could see it fit atop a missile. But the fact that North Korea has been able to carry off another nuclear test, this time with a seismic force far greater than their previous test in 2009, indicates significant progress. The time for halting North Korea’s ambitions in this area are long past.
Does that mean that we should stop trying? No. But maybe it’s time to admit that the nuclear diplomacy practised so far by the US and others has got us nowhere.
The reaction by the international community has been predictable, and will likely be as ineffective as the tough talk that came before the test. The UK has threatened that North Korea will face further isolation. But can it be any more isolated than it is already? The international community has by now levelled every sanction imaginable at the country, going so far as to ban exports like luxury yachts and lobsters to its elite.
This latest test has in fact done the opposite of isolating Korea: it has brought the country, and its new, young leader, centrestage.
The US has called the act a threat to US and international security. Is it really? Yes, but not in the way one might initially imagine. North Korea would hardly risk its own destruction by waging nuclear war against the most powerful army the world has ever seen (or its protectorates in South Korea and Japan). It might be “different”, but it is not irrational or stupid.
The real threat now is that of proliferation: the worrying possibility that North Korea could spread its nuclear knowledge to other countries as it has in the past; or that countries in the region whom do not have a nuclear weapon, like Japan and South Korea, might develop the bomb out of fear for their security. The former is a serious threat, the latter more existential, undermining as it would well-established norms in the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation effort. A further, slightly less direct, threat is the continued legitimisation (in their own eyes at least) of the United States’s quest for a missile shield, a dangerous idea that has already become a source of much tension between the US and Russia.
Is there any practical way of deterring North Korea from its nuclear ambitions? History suggests there is not. The only suspected case of a nuclear rollback — where a country has built an arsenal and then unilaterally dismantled it — is South Africa. And even if that suspicion is to be believed, the theory tells us that the decision to disarm was based on internal calculations of the security dynamic, and not because of external threats or pressures directed at its clandestine programme.
The world through Cold War lenses
Countless sanctions against North Korea have not prevented it from exploding three nuclear devices to date, as well as testing a number of ballistic missiles (mostly unsuccessfully); both are activities that the international community, through the UN Security Council, has forbidden it from pursuing.
North Korea has broken every international agreement it has ever entered into in this area, over a period of 28 years, transgressing far beyond Iraq and Iran. Yet war is not an option. North Korea could destroy Seoul with conventional missiles overnight, killing hundreds of thousands of people and destroying the Asian economies in the process. And special diplomacy between the main players in the region, including Russia and the US as brokers, has demonstrably failed.
Can we incentivise North Korea away from its nuclear ambitions? Unlikely. Generous incentives in the past were quickly abused and proved pointless.
North Korea seems to be from a different era, viewing the world through Cold War lenses where the possession of a nuclear deterrent is both the ultimate defence and the ultimate legitimacy. No country with a nuclear weapon has ever been invaded. And those countries with the bomb either sit at the international top table (the UN Security Council etc) or are courted avidly by the main global powers.
The greatest threat of all
As with Iran, you cannot look at the nuclear issue in isolation. But then you have to ask yourself if there is any point in looking at this issue at all. Despite our best and worst efforts, North Korea has gone nuclear. The imperative now must surely be to keep it on side, to keep it from spreading its knowledge and technology to others. We must attempt to slowly draw the reclusive state into the fold, into the normalcy of international relations in the 21st century — ignoring if we must its nuclear transgressions. We have to include it if we are to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Huffing and puffing has got us nowhere.
China will condemn the test and the US will seek the strongest possible response. But both countries have failed to ratify the one international treaty that bans all nuclear weapon testing — the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty — and because of this the Treaty is not yet in force.
These countries should really recognise their own responsibility (and hypocrisy) here. Ultimately we will never be able to include North Korea in international efforts if it is eternally treated as a pariah. It will not give up the bomb when its people are starving, paranoid and desperate. And it will not give up the bomb while others continue to keep it. But it might give it away – and that is the greatest threat.
This piece was first published on Le Monde Diplomatique. Eoghan Murphy is the Fine Gael TD for Dublin South East.