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Column: North Korea’s pursuit of the bomb should not be ignored

While a functioning nuclear weapon remains years away for North Korea, recent activities and statements will nevertheless have a worrying effect in Seoul, Washington and the wider world, writes Jason Douglas.

Jason Douglas

NORTH KOREA’S THIRD nuclear test conducted on the 12 of February did not go unnoticed by the international community. In response, the UN Security Council unanimously agreed to impose more economic sanctions on the pariah state. This latest round of sanctions is designed, in the words of US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, “to significantly impede North Korea’s ability to develop further its illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, as well as its proliferation activities.”

Pyongyang has responded to these sanctions in characteristically brusque fashion. It has declared the fragile 1953 armistice (which ended the Korean War) null and void, significantly raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula. It has also threatened to launch pre-emptive nuclear attacks on Seoul and the United, leading the Pyongyang-based Korean Central News to announce that “a nuclear war may break out right now.”

North Korean Provocations

North Korea has long engaged in provocative behaviour. In 1998, Pyongyang launched a missile which flew over Japanese territory, hoping to place a satellite in orbit. This venture failed – but not before raising tensions in East Asia and the United States. In 2002, in contravention of the 1994 Agreed Framework with the United States, North Korea was found to be in the process of pursuing uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies – key ingredients for nuclear weapons manufacturing. A year later, it withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Since then, efforts led by the US, Russia and China as well as South Korea and Japan (the Six-Party talks) to compel the regime to abandon its illicit activities have all ended in deadlock. The death of Kim Jong-Il in December 2011 and his replacement with his Swiss-educated son, Kim Jong-Un led to speculation that the latter might be a reforming character. North Korea’s recent erratic behaviour, however, has proven these hopes to be way off the mark.

Since his succession, Kim Jong-Un has embarked on a provocative and alarming course. Efforts to test and develop a nuclear capability have intensified under his rule. In December 2012, Pyongyang conducted a successful missile launch, widely seen as an attempt to develop a means of delivering a warhead. This led to widespread condemnation and the renewal of economic sanctions on the country. Dismissing these sanctions, the regime announced its intention to go ahead with a third nuclear test, which it conducted in February at the Punngye-ri nuclear installation.

The developments of the past several days are the after-effects of this nuclear test. The latest round of sanctions, while not enforced by military power (which the UNSC could have invoked under Chapter 7, Article 42 of the UN Charter), are still hitting the regime and curtailing its ability to act as it pleases.

China and its wayward neighbour

Seen as the only ally of the isolated and beleaguered regime, China has had the ability to influence its wayward neighbour. More recently, however, this ability seems to have waned. It now backs the imposition of sanctions. Whether this development marks a shift in China’s policy toward North Korea remains to be seen.

Usually, China’s trade with North Korea increases in the aftermath of sanctions. China’s national interest is in maintaining peace and stability in its surrounding area. At present, China is concerned with nurturing its domestic economy and gives aid to Pyongyang in the form of oil, food and machinery. Beijing does not do this out of altruism or friendship; the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang could spark a humanitarian crisis with hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of refugees spilling over China’s border.

What do these developments mean? North Korea seems to have settled on its path of attempting to acquire a weaponised nuclear capability and it seems that no amount of sticks and carrots will deter it from its course. Further provocations of some sort should be expected in the coming weeks and months. Its nuclear threats to the US and South Korea, however, should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Thus far, Pyongyang has not demonstrated its ability to launch a nuclear weapon. It is one thing to demonstrate an ability conduct a nuclear test, quite another to turn this ability into a working weapon. This will require miniaturising this ability into the size of a deliverable nuclear warhead. There is also the added difficulty of preparing this warhead for re-entry to the atmosphere as the process of re-entry causes objects to burn up. But this should not minimise the threat posed: the regime possesses hundreds of Nodong missiles which could conceivably be used to strike US military bases in the region, as well as South Korea and Japan. It has also demonstrated that it is slowly, but perceptibly, mastering the technologies needed to develop a nuclear weapon.

Robust and credible nuclear deterrence

If North Korea acquires a nuclear capability, which it might yet do in the coming years, it is unlikely to risk national suicide by using the weapon. Robust and credible nuclear deterrence, though imperfect, might play a role in maintaining stability. A more worrying development would be the influence a nuclear-armed North Korea might have on its regional neighbours.

South Korea and Japan, rendered insecure, might clamour for a deterrent of their own. Currently, the US extends its nuclear umbrella to these states, so that they do not pursue independent nuclear capabilities. A North Korean bomb would be a severe setback to the pursuit of non-proliferation and disarmament in the region and might raise tensions to boiling point.

It seems years before this will take place. Short of pre-emptive strikes on its nuclear facilities, which China would never agree to, the international community is doing all it can to prevent it. The idea that Pyongyang could strike the US homeland with nuclear weapons, or anything else, is at this point laughable but, despite this, its recent activities and statements will be sure to have a worrying effect in Seoul, Washington and the wider world.

Jason Douglas is a PhD student in UCC. He has written on various nuclear weapons issues such as  deterrence, non-proliferation and missile defences. Samples of his work can be found at Academia.edu.

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