North Korea’s Nuclear Genie Puts Region on Edge
By Wendell Minnick, Taipei
Two events in 2006 demonstrated Pyongyang’s political leadership is either utterly insane or crazy like a fox.
On July 4, North Korea launched seven missiles, including short-range Nodong 2s and Scuds and long-range Taepodong 2s, and then, on Oct. 9, conducted its first underground nuclear test.
The tests showed an influence in the Asia-Pacific region that belied North Korea’s weak economy and limited political muscle. This was clearly in evidence in late November, when U.S. envoy Christopher Hill and North Korean envoy Kim Kye-gwan met in Beijing to discuss resuming the Six Party Talks.
Kim arrived in Beijing confident and unapologetic for the nuclear test.
“We have gained a defensive position against those who are trying to suppress us. Now we are in a confident position and so we are ready to come back to the talks any time,” Kim told reporters Nov. 28.
This development illustrates the hypnotic power that nuclear weapons – no matter how small or shoddily made – hold over the international community.
“Despite China’s more mature role in regional security, the North Korea missile and nuclear tests shook the much-valued ‘stability’ in Northeast Asia, severely undermined Beijing’s claims for a go-slow approach to the dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear programs, galvanized rival Japan’s defensive response, strained South Korea’s ties to the U.S., weakened China’s relationship with the North Korean military, and challenged a friendly American president’s standing,” said Shirley Kan, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington.
But even if the talks are restarted, political division among China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States will make it nearly impossible to get North Korea to put the nuclear genie back into the bottle. The five nations, which agree on little except the core principle of “no nukes on the peninsula,” have split into two camps.
In the compromise camp are China, Russia and South Korea, which object to U.N. Security Council sanction resolutions and forced the cancellation of the recent APEC meeting in Hanoi to discuss the issue. In the get-tough camp are Japan and the United States.
“I think that the progress of the Six Party Talks has demonstrated the true post-Cold War shift in international politics in Northeast Asia. I perceive a growing imbalance: China, Russia, North Korea and even South Korea on one side of the table, with the U.S. and Japan on the other,” said Bernard “Bud” Cole, a China specialist at the National War College, Washington.
China and South Korea hold particular sway, said Sumihiko Kawamura, deputy director of the Okazaki Institute, Tokyo.
“No effective results are credible if not full support to the sanctions is given by these two countries, and hopefully, Russia as well,” Kawamura said.
Despite past diplomatic failures, diplomacy appears to be the only tool left for Tokyo and Washington short of military strikes against nuclear facilities.
“Diplomacy remains central because – as unlikely as a North Korean agreement to denuclearize may be – it is still the best outcome. In addition, strategies for containment and interdiction cannot work without China and the other regional powers and they will not sign on to a strategy of containment and interdiction without a diplomatic ‘off-ramp’ should North Korea yield,” said Mike Green, senior adviser a the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies, and former senior director for Asia on the U.S. National Security Council.
Green argues that U.S. policy did not change. “Which is to say that the existence of North Korean nuclear weapons was already assumed, and the approach still requires a combination of enhanced deterrence, containment and interdiction, and diplomacy,” he said.
Japan and the Bomb
Though Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests were a limited technical success, both served as a tipping point for Japan, which has accelerated its ballistic missile defense program, opened discussion about modifying the Constitution, and is mulling beginning a nuclear-weapon effort of its own.
“On Oct. 31, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that he aims to revise the Constitution, including Article 9, which renounces the nation’s right to wage war,” said Kawamura.
Constitutional changes have been a long-time goal of conservatives in Japan, but a nuclear program had been largely taboo.
C. Kenneth Quinones, a professor of Korean studies at Akita International University in Japan, said Tokyo was currently committed to a nuke-free military. But he warns that this could change “abruptly if the United States were to withdraw or weaken its nuclear umbrella over Japan,” said Quinones, a former U.S. State Department official who was a member of the U.S. negotiating team that resolved the first Korean nuclear crisis.
Pyongyang’s bellicose and aberrant behavior appears to have changed attitudes among the Japanese population on the need for a strong military
Nuclear blackmail by North Korea will apparently work. Pyongyang will get more oil, food and medicine to survive another winter, and Japan and the United States will have to accept a nuclear North Korea.
“At this point, the remaining options for the U.S. and Japan will be to accept North Korea as a nuclear power or take more critical measures, including limited military actions necessary to invite regime change in North Korea,” said Kawamura.