- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2006

North Korea stated it will conduct nuclear test “in the future” in response to the “U.S. threat of nuclear war and its vicious sanctions.” Last month a pro-North Korean Japanese newspaper linked test preparations to the freeze on Kim Jong-il’s ‘pocket money’ — $24 million in a Macau bank. This is certain to have personally embarrassed the “Dear Leader” but is unlikely to be the real motivation.

Although such a test would be deplorable and internationally condemned, should we be overly concerned if it happened? More important, how should the international community react?

A nuclear test is an obvious next step for an ambitious threshold state, as it could demonstrate mastery of atomic weapon technology. Even a failed test would be viewed as the next rung up the escalatory ladder for a state looking to coerce its adversaries and neighbors. And it could give Pyongyang’s scientists data likely to be needed to validate or improve the crude, supposedly a Pakistani-based design.

However, the first test of a declared nuclear weapons state can only be conducted once — subsequent tests lose their impact and leverage. Why waste the country’s only, first nuclear test on such a trivial matter?

He may struggle to continue to buy Cognac, live like a playboy and prop up a failing regime, but the frozen assets are but a fraction of the aid offered by last year’s six party talks’ agreement, in return for suspending Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Former senior U.S. officials have reported North Korean negotiators showed no interest in incentives but focused on their nuclear program.

This led to the conclusion — subsequently proved correct — that getting the bomb was the only objective. Once tested, North Korea may then feel it would be in the best position to negotiate.

The U.S. and its allies’ intervention options have long been constrained by the large North Korean standing army. Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons do little to change this, but arguably give North Korea the potential to conduct conventional military operations that it might not otherwise contemplate. Any doubts about the functionality of its nuclear weapons are unlikely to affect its adversaries’ perceptions of its willingness to use them or the effects these terrible weapons may have. Together with its conventional forces North Korean nuclear weapons already bolster an already effective deterrent. A failed test could undermine their role in the short term. But a successful second attempt might actually be advantageous for coercing its adversaries.

International concerns are more about proliferation and its longer-term impact on the region. The community maintains a forlorn hope that Pyongyang might be convinced to end its nuclear weapons’ program. A test at this time could be viewed as an unambiguous announcement of technological success, with no going back.

A test might also cause South Korea and Japan to reconsider their positions on nuclear weapons, but this could hardly be in North Korea’s interest. It would also strengthen China’s resolve to exert pressure on its former ally. However, the preparations for, and threats of, testing are largely aimed at a domestic audience.

Kim Jong-il’s position within the regime seems tenuous following the United Nations Security Council resolution on sanctions against his country, which highlighted his misjudgment. A test could be a desperate attempt to show strength to the Pyongyang elite, but would have little long-term military effect.

However, if North Korea is technically ready to test, it will seek to find excuses to do so and ways of maximizing its diplomatic and extortion value. So we must assume that Kim Jong-il wants to retain the bomb and to extort aid from the international community.

How can we exploit this?

First, we must stop assuming he will give up nuclear weapons. He won’t. Second, we can step up the pressure — diplomacy, sanctions and pursuit of North Korea’s various illegal revenue generation schemes — in the hope this will lead to collapse of the regime or a return to the six-party talks.

Third, the U.S. should invest in small numbers of precision, prompt global strike assets, intelligence and military plans, in order to deny much of the deterrence value of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and to reassure allies in the region. And finally, we should urge restraint of nations that might consider developing their own nuclear weapons in response to a test.

Accelerated investment in missile defense coverage of U.S. allies in the region would strengthen rhetorical security assurances.

Mostly these are relevant if North Korea does not test, but overemphasis on containing the program would set up America for failure. An underground nuclear test by North Korea would not be a step change. Similar to North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nonproliferation Treaty and its declaration of nuclear weapons’ procession, there would likely be no international knee-jerk reaction.

On the bright side, any nuclear test by North Korea would mean there is one less nuclear weapon in its stockpile — perhaps a 50 percent reduction.

There is no obvious reason for Mr. Kim to test at this particular time — other than perhaps being in a position to do so, technically, for the first time — but if he plans to test come what may, he will blame U.S. interference to gain some diplomatic value from it and deflect some criticism. However, there is less reason for concern if he does. Showing concern plays to his hand. The international community must learn to live with a nuclear North Korea and, although worrying, a nuclear test does not change this imperative.


A visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed are his own.

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