North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have been a long-running saga, but there is much room for speculation over why it should have chosen to foreground them at this stage, ensuring that they become the most immediate strategic priority for the U.S. and its global allies. It is certainly a material circumstance that the Kim Jong Il regime announced its intention to test a nuclear weapon just over a week after a new Prime Minister took office in Japan.
With the first intimations of its intent given on October 3, North Korea allowed sufficient time for world powers to summon up every manner of monitory warning to deflect it off course. On October 8, just as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was touching down in Seoul after a summit meeting in Beijing, North Korea came out with the triumphal announcement that it had indeed ventured beyond a threshold only eight other countries have dared cross.
Till well after that event, forensic experts remained undecided about just how credible the North Korean claim was. Seismic readings from the location of the putative test yielded conflicting estimates of the power of the explosion. Russia put it at between 5 and 15 kilotons, the rather generous margin for error being an inevitable outcome of a complete lack of knowledge about the geological formation in which the test was carried out. Readings recorded in the U.S., spoke of an explosive yield of considerably less than one kiloton. Signals picked up by monitoring stations in France and South Korea, though, seemed to indicate a still lower yield of 0.2 kilotons. This fell seriously short of the four kiloton test that North Korea reportedly warned China it intended to carry out, twenty minutes before detonation. It is also nowhere near the 10 to 15 kiloton yields that India and Pakistan claimed from their tit-for-tat explosions in 1998.
A final verdict must await the results obtained through atmospheric assays now underway. The principal powers with stakes in the Korean peninsula hesitated though, to make much of the suspicion of a failed nuclear test. With the U.S. and Japan leading the way, the U.N. Security Council was rapidly being called into session, to frame an appropriate response that would leave North Korea few avenues of evasion.
The first impulse of the U.S. was to demand a resolution under article 42 in chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, permitting among other things, the interdiction of sea and air-borne cargos into the country. China in contrast, was tilting towards economic and diplomatic sanctions under the more pacific article 41. Signalling its impatience with the prospect of a prolonged diplomatic wrangle, Japan had meanwhile imposed its own unilateral sanctions, effectively terminating every manner of economic link with North Korea.
As with the provocative missile tests it conducted last July, which raised hackles in Japan and the U.S., but induced far more moderate reactions in China and South Korea, the Kim Jong Il regime is gambling on the sustenance and perhaps, the widening, of these differences in perception. Though few suggestions of any strategic intent have emerged from the secretive labyrinths of Pyongyang, it is a fair conjecture that North Korea is well aware of the growing impatience in the region with the U.S.’s obsessive, almost theologically motivated, approach to international diplomacy.
It is indicative of the relatively weak hand that the U.S. has to play, that the North Korean nuclear tests have stirred up a bitter partisan debate between President Bush’s Republican party and his predecessor Bill Clinton’s Democrats. At issue is the policy of engagement with North Korea that began in 1994, only to be abruptly terminated by Bush within a month of his assumption of office.
The responsibility for this reversal of course was then laid at the doorstep of the North Korean regime, which the Bush cabal insisted, had proved itself incapable of abiding by any agreement concluded in good faith. This jibe was delivered as a frontal rebuke to the visiting South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, a Nobel laureate and architect of the “sunshine” policy of reconciliation with the north, when he visited Washington in March 2006. And like much else that Bush has said in public, it was rapidly proven absolutely false. Under questioning, spokesmen for the Bush administration conceded that North Korea had not reneged on any deal concluded since 1994. That indeed, they said, had not been the sense of the President’s remarks, which pertained more to future agreements.
The plain reason for the change of tack was the unilateralist urge that had a second and more virulent awakening under Bush. Also relevant was the Bush administration’s compelling need to ramp up military budgets and provide for technologically improbable missile defence system. A threat had to be invented to justify this budgetary profligacy and the doctrine of “rogue states” which designated North Korea in a stellar role came in handy in this respect.
In the mandated “Nuclear Posture Review” sent to the U.S. Congress in December 2001, the Bush administration identified the “immediate contingencies” that the U.S. needed to prepare for as “an Iraqi attack on Israel or its neighbors, a North Korean attack on South Korea, or a military confrontation over the status of Taiwan”. North Korea and Iraq were characterised as “chronic military concerns” and with the benefit of now knowing what the standards of truth were in the case of Iraq, the world should have a better idea of the significance of the threat from North Korea. The same standard of truth of course, would also need to be applied to Bush’s infamous characterisation in January 2002, of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, as the “axis of evil” that the U.S. was intent on dismantling.
The U.S.’s most recent quirky change of direction came in September 2005, when it imposed sweeping financial sanctions against North Korea, just four days after signing a six-party agreement involving China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Selig Harrison, one of the few western commentators with access to the inside track of policy in Pyongyang, has gathered that this was read by North Korea, as final confirmation of the “dysfunctionality” of the Bush administration and its inability to honour any agreement.
As the U.S. prepares its final push to secure a U.N. mandate for decisive action, perceptions among all its prospective partners, with the exception of a rather uncritical Japan, are likely to be coloured by its track-record of agreements wantonly violated and commitments not delivered on. And unlike Iraq in 2003, when it rushed into battle in defiance of world opinion, borne along by a messianic belief in its invincibility, matters are rather different now.
India has reasons to be concerned that the North Korean tests endanger the global nuclear architecture and in particular the recent modifications undertaken as a special favour by the Bush administration. Having got one foot in the doorway of the exclusive club of “nuclear weapons states”, India cannot be happy at the prospect of a competitive nuclear weapons spiral in east Asia.
Japan though, has been quick to disavow any possibility of amending its policy of neither possessing nuclear weapons nor permitting their location on its soil. But a lingering suspicion about Japan’s longer-term intentions is a factor behind the Chinese reaction. The North Korean tests could be just the trigger that the right-wing element in Japan needs to raise the pitch of its campaign for national rearmament. South Korea meanwhile, has seen a surge in domestic support for its own nuclear program, which included a uranium enrichment experiment as recently as 2000. But South Korea is also aware that the “sunshine policy” has brought it undoubted gains. And as an increasingly self-confident democracy, it is anxious to leave behind the legacy of the Cold War and its own years under military dictatorship.
North Korean “regime change” is inherent in the “sunshine policy”, since the gradual opening up of contacts on the peninsula would induce a change in the political culture and modes of economic organisation in the world’s most secluded state. But the U.S. views the North Korean tests as an opportunity to impose “regime change” on terms that it would unilaterally like to dictate. Without the active endorsement of China and South Korea though, the game-plan is unlikely to proceed very far. And certainly neither of these countries is anxious to set off a political implosion in its near neighbourhood.