Tuesday, May 26, 2009

World powerless to stop North Korea

Asia Times:

World powerless to stop North Korea
By Santaro Rey

North Korea's decision to carry out its second nuclear test on Monday could have far-reaching consequences, if South Korea and Japan conclude that nothing can be done to persuade Pyongyang to denuclearize. Under such circumstances, developing their own nuclear weapons might become increasingly desirable for Seoul and Tokyo.

North Korea shook the world - literally - in the early hours of May 25, carrying out its second nuclear test, at a site in the northeast of the country. Significantly, the latest detonation was much more powerful than its first nuclear test, carried out on October 9, 2006, which was widely believed to have fizzled. The Russian military and the South's Defense Ministry estimated Monday's blast to have yielded 20 kilotons, or roughly the same as the American atomic bomb that destroyed the Japanese city of Nagasaki at the end of World War II in 1945.

That North Korea decided to conduct a second nuclear test was not surprising. Pyongyang's official media had been warning since April 29 that it might conduct a test, as an expression of its displeasure at the United Nations Security Council's criticism of its failed satellite launch (in reality a test of its long-range Taepodong 2 missile) on April 5. Nonetheless, the test came sooner than expected, and unlike its predecessor, Pyongyang did not provide official advance notice in its state-controlled media.

Factors driving the test
North Korea's decision to test the bomb likely had several motivations. Firstly, given that the October 2006 test was widely considered to have fizzled, yielding less than 1 kiloton, Pyongyang needed its own reassurances that it had a fully functioning nuclear weapon. The North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) confirmed as much, when it stated, "The test helped satisfactorily settle the scientific and technological problems arising in further increasing the power of nuclear weapons."

In the absence of such confirmation, the regime of Kim Jong-il could not be certain that it had sufficient deterrent to repel any external aggression. In addition, the North also needed to make a credible demonstration of its nuclear arsenal to the major powers in the region that it considers hostile, namely the United States, South Korea and Japan. Just to reinforce the message, Pyongyang also test-fired several short-range missiles off its east coast, facing Japan. Nonetheless, international observers still doubt that North Korea has the means to attach nuclear warheads to its array of missiles.

The second reason for North Korea's nuclear test was to put the country at the top of the US's international agenda, at a time when the global economic recession and the war in Afghanistan have emerged as its most pressing challenges. Pyongyang had sought to do this with its April 5 Taepodong 2 missile test, but the world's reaction was somewhat muted. As to why the North craves the US's attention, the main reason is to extract economic and diplomatic concessions. Ultimately, there are reasons to believe that Pyongyang seeks a grand bargain with Washington in which it would be granted diplomatic relations and economic assistance while receiving official acceptance of its nuclear status.

However unrealistic that may sound, North Korea has seen how nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in 1998, initially condemned by the international community, were later overlooked as the West came to see those two countries as too important to ignore. Pakistan became the West's frontline ally in the "war on terror" after September 11, 2001, and received billions of dollars in aid, while India's rising economic power made it unrealistic to marginalize it. Unfortunately for Pyongyang, it has nothing to offer the rest of the world. Thus, its brinkmanship if anything makes it harder for the US to offer North Korea meaningful rewards.

The third reason for the nuclear test - albeit somewhat more speculative - is that Kim Jong-il is seeking to reassert his authority after months of illness since last summer. This may also have been a motivation for the Taepodong 2 test in April. Kim's illness has raised heightened uncertainty about his succession, with most observers anticipating his third son, Kim Jong-un, will eventually succeed him.

However, it is more likely that a military-dominated collective leadership centered around the National Defense Commission (NDC) - the highest decision-making body in North Korea - would fill the vacuum if Kim senior exited the scene. The NDC was expanded to 13 members in early April at the first session of the North's new parliament, and all its members' photos were published in the North's official media, underscoring their rising prominence. In light of this, Pyongyang may well be signaling that there will be no let-up in its hardline policy in the event of a leadership transition.

US and allies have no levers
Rhetoric aside, the US and its allies have no realistic means with which to punish North Korea. Military action is widely considered unthinkable. This is not merely because the US is militarily stretched in Afghanistan and Iraq, nor is it because the North could retaliate using its nuclear weapons. It is also because Pyongyang has massive conventional weaponry, including a 1.1 million-strong army (the world's fifth-largest), 180,000-strong special forces (the world's largest such force), and thousands of artillery pieces and short- and medium-range missiles capable of raining destruction on South Korea and Japan.

Moreover, North Korea has always insisted that its nuclear arsenal is for deterrence purposes. Unless Pyongyang is caught red-handed selling nuclear weapons to terrorists groups or anti-Western states such as Iran, the US, South Korea and Japan would struggle to find a casus belli against the North.

Tighter sanctions are often cited as a potential lever against North Korea. Yet the truth is that the communist state is already subject to so many sanctions that any new ones would largely be meaningless. In any case, Pyongyang has chosen a course of isolation for itself and has willingly moved to cut off joint projects with South Korea, such as the Kaesong Industrial Park, where southern companies manufacture goods using low-cost northern labor.

With the US, South Korea and Japan largely powerless, attention has naturally turned to China to punish the North. Since Beijing is Pyongyang's biggest source of aid and investment, it has the ability to strangle its neighbor into submission. Yet China would never do this, since doing so would risk triggering the very collapse of the North which it so fears.

A putative collapse there would result in millions of North Koreans fleeing into China, thus boosting the strength of the ethnic Korean population already there, and adding to local unemployment problems. Furthermore, Beijing does not wish to see instability in the North that could lead to US military intervention so close to its border.

Thus, despite China's official criticism of North Korea's nuclear test, and its apparent desire to play a more responsible role in the international arena, punitive measures are unlikely. Indeed, there were unconfirmed rumors on May 25 that Pyongyang had given Beijing advance notice of the nuclear test. If true, this means at best that China was unable to stop North Korea. At worst, China might have secretly welcomed the test, for it makes the US and its allies look powerless.

While the major powers may have run out of options for dealing with North Korea, the same is also true for Pyongyang. Its policy of testing missiles and/or nuclear weapons is now becoming familiar fare to international policymakers. A nuclear test is arguably the regime's strongest card, and it has already been played twice.

Moreover, since its nuclear arsenal is limited, Pyongyang cannot test nuclear weapons too often without exhausting its supply. Furthermore, while detonating nuclear bombs clearly ups the ante, the world has long learned to live with a nuclear North Korea. This works in Pyongyang's favor in that it represents de facto acceptance of its nuclear arsenal. But it also means that Pyongyang is less able to orchestrate a crisis by threatening nuclear tests, or even by carrying them out.

The bigger issue: Nuclear dominoes
The bigger question is whether North Korea's nuclear test will lead to growing calls for South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons. South Korea had a nuclear weapons program in the 1970s, during the administration of military strongman Park Chung-hee, but was forced to abandon it under US pressure.

However, in the early 2000s, South Korea admitted that its scientists had carried out experiments with nuclear materials. For its part, Japan recently reaffirmed its long-held three non-nuclear principles of not producing, possessing or allowing the introduction to its territory of nuclear weapons, after former finance minister Shoichi Nakagawa stated that Japan should at least debate whether to go nuclear.

Nonetheless, in recent years it has become less taboo for Japanese politicians to raise the nuclear debate, with figures as high-ranking as former opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader Ichiro Ozawa warning in April 2002 that Japan could build thousands of nuclear weapons.

Significantly, Ozawa was speaking in reference to counterbalancing China, not North Korea. Moreover, although Ozawa was recently forced to resign as head of the DPJ owing to a corruption scandal, his influence in the party will linger. Ozawa is an advocate of a more independent and assertive Japan, and if the DPJ wins general elections that must be held by October, it could introduce subtle changes to Japan's defense policy. Although a nuclear Japan is not imminent, it has the nuclear technology and a space program, which could be combined into a long-range nuclear arsenal.

For more than 60 years, South Korea and Japan have been protected from either the Soviet Union, China or North Korea by a US nuclear umbrella. However, if Seoul or Tokyo were to ever experience doubts about the reliability of this deterrent, they could eventually embark on a nuclear weapons build-up. Although US presidents have warned North Korea that using nuclear weapons would lead to their own destruction, Seoul and Tokyo cannot guarantee that Washington would be willing to use nuclear weapons to avenge the loss of any Korean or Japanese cities if the North had the means to attempt a nuclear strike on the US itself.

Ultimately, a nuclear South Korea and Japan could transform the geostrategic landscape of East Asia, and possibly the world. It could hasten the end of US hegemony in Asia, since the two would become less dependent on the US to guarantee their security.

There would be less need for US bases in the region, and Seoul and Tokyo might become a lot more assertive. Meanwhile, China would at the very least be uncomfortable with a nuclear South Korea. One reason is that Seoul could become more assertive about future territorial disputes concerning the ancient kingdom of Koguryo (Goguryeo), which incorporated large tracts of China and Korea.

But the bigger reason is that a nuclear South Korea might encourage Taiwan to develop nuclear weapons for fear of being left behind in the nuclear race. For China, a nuclear Taiwan would be intolerable, for it would make it easier for the island to declare independence from the mainland without fear of retribution if the Taiwanese people's desire arose. Finally, China would be especially concerned about a nuclear Japan, since Tokyo is Beijing's most formidable geopolitical rival in East Asia and a potential check on its self-proclaimed peaceful rise.

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