A nuclear North Korea: Turning up the heat

Analysing the implications of North Korea’s continued development of nuclear weapons

The statues of Kim Il Sung (left) and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, April 2012 Photo: J. A. de Roo

The statues of Kim Il Sung (left) and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, April 2012 Photo: J. A. de Roo

ON 9 SEPTEMBER, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) announced that it had conducted its largest nuclear test to date, further escalating regional tensions. Condemned unanimously by the United Nations, this latest experiment is merely the newest development in a program that began in earnest in 2006.

Various sources (South Korea, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies) have stated that the test yield was between 10 and 30 kilotonnes (kT) but due to the DPRK’s isolated nature, more precise measurements have not been possible. This would make the latest test more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The important thing is that, five tests in, they now have a lot of nuclear test experience

“The important thing is that, five tests in, they now have a lot of nuclear test experience,” stated Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute in an interview with Reuters. This is alarming. The international community has struggled to respond in any meaningful way to the continued development of the program; the UN Security Council voted on 2 March to impose new sanctions in response to a test conducted in January and yet this has proved ineffective at curbing the North’s determination to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Further concerns, particularly for South Korea and Japan, are that the North may now be able to mount nuclear warheads to long-range missiles leaving questions such as “What do we do?” all the more pressing.

Eyes are on China to properly enforce sanctions and place pressure on Pyongyang to disarm. Although condemning the program, China’s role is complicated by geopolitical forces; it opposes the deployment of the THAAD missile defence system in South Korea, arguing that it threatens China’s national security by curbing its retaliatory capacity in the event of a nuclear attack.

Furthermore, it and Russia remain sceptical about new sanctions. Russia in particular has signalled that it prefers to explore options to revive multilateral talks that collapsed in 2008. The result is a deadlock and headache that the next President will inherit.

The result is a deadlock and headache that the next President will inherit.

Nuclear weapons are infamous for being able to level entire cities. Both East and West during the Cold War agreed that proliferation of nuclear weapons would disrupt the delicate balance of power. By ensuring mutually assured destruction, an incentive to not use nuclear weapons remained in place, but allowing third countries to acquire them would have jeopardised this. The result was the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) which limited the proliferation of nuclear warheads, entering into force in 1970 with 190 countries party to the agreement as of 2015.

To tackle the North’s transgressions, new methods should be tried. Further UN sanctions would simply be brushed off, further discrediting the Security Council. Focus should be on targeting US, Chinese, and EU sanctions so that they affect the Pyongyang elite, squeezing their finances, as previously the burden of sanctions has fallen on North Korea’s citizens, and securing bilateral cooperation between China and the West. This may include giving ground in defence policy, a bitter pill to swallow.

What must not happen however is for the North’s actions to go unpunished; not doing so would amount to tacit acceptance, and therefore legitimisation, of the North’s status as a nuclear-armed state, thereby shattering the credibility of the NPT. With the risk of a new standoff turning hot, not doing so will have dire consequences.

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