More nuclear tests? You bet
In previous columns I have argued the next North Korean nuclear test is a question of when, not whether. Most analysts look at the North’s provocative missile and nuclear tests as diplomatic or political devices to show defiance, garner attention or improve terms for negotiations. However, if one steps back and looks at the pattern of provocations, it becomes clear that the only consistent explanation for the tests is that Pyongyang is deliberately working its way toward mounting nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles capable of terrorizing the region and eventually hitting the United States.
In short, for Pyongyang, the nuclear weapons program is a higher priority than diplomatic or political issues. The latter certainly could influence the timing of the tests, but so too might the weather or technical considerations with respect to the weapons themselves.
I have been arguing this since well before the North enshrined its nuclear weapons position in the constitution. When Hwang Jang-yop visited the White House in October 2003, he explained to us in detail how Kang Sok-ju returned from Geneva and told him the North would delay the Agreed Framework until ready to confront the United States with a “new nuclear deterrent” - meaning, of course, the highly enriched uranium program.
I then asked our experts to prepare a timeline for how North Korea would develop its nuclear weapons and missiles in terms of technical, rather than political, factors. The timeline produced a decade ago essentially anticipated the tests North Korea subsequently conducted. When the North enshrined its nuclear weapons status in a new constitution in 2012, it left little doubt of Pyongyang’s intentions and the limited ability of either sticks or carrots to knock alter the course.
Now we are engaged in another “will they or won’t they” watch to see what Pyongyang will do. North Korea’s state news agency published a statement by the National Defense Council last week warning of “catastrophic consequences” from a UN Committee vote on Nov. 18 condemning the North’s atrocious human rights record. The North Korean envoy on the human rights committee of the UN also said his country would not have to refrain from nuclear tests if condemned by the world body. Then on Sunday, the National Defense Commission referred to “tough counteraction.” Some analysts thought this collection of statements meant another nuclear test is imminent. In contrast, The Wall Street Journal speculated on Sunday that the North might be backing away from a test because of Kim Jong-un’s trip to Russia, which Pyongyang hopes may be a new card to counter the United States and balance its dependence on China.
Whether the North tests a nuclear device next week or next month should not determine our strategy. Despite outreach to Russia, Japan and the Republic of Korea, Pyongyang has consistently maintained its nuclear weapons status and its right to conduct further tests. By setting our diplomatic strategy to go off in reaction to North Korean tests, we have ceded all momentum to Pyongyang. The North builds its capability, dabbling in diplomacy until ready to test, and then condemns the hostile policy (usually of the United States) and tests. We react strongly through the United Nations, but then lose interest and eventually go about our business. The North then picks up where it left off, preparing for the next stage.
However, this is not a cyclical game where we reset to stage-one each round. Every time we play this game, the North takes another step toward a significant threat to our alliance and regional stability.
Since we can be fairly certain a test is coming sooner or later, we should be taking steps among like-minded states to expand interdiction of North Korean dual use shipments - indicating our seriousness of purpose to the North and China - and preparing for new Security Council Resolutions that would codify these interdictions internationally after a test occurs. Once Beijing appreciates that the United States, the ROK and other states are going to take measures to limit and defend against the North Korean threat regardless of tactical diplomatic or provocative moves by the North, then Beijing will realize we care about the North’s actual capabilities and intend to do something to limit the threat with or without China’s help.
This would require greater effort from Washington, of course. Interdiction means more intelligence assets, steady leadership and coordination from the White House, and possibly new tensions in U.S.-China relations, since Beijing will not be happy with the pressure. Given Iraq, Ebola and Iran - it is not surprising the Obama administration prefers the tough-sounding but low maintenance policy of “strategic patience.” Seoul, too, would rather sound tough by promising no concessions without progress on the nuclear program, rather than taking proactive steps to contain the nuclear program itself. (My friends on the left agree, and argue we should make concessions in exchange for a partial freeze, but I would not consider that a reduction of the threat.)
U.S.-ROK alliance solidarity is strong today, and both governments deserve credit for that, but it also is a result of the fact that neither side is doing much vis-a-vis North Korea. It is easy to stay closely coordinated when we are both going zero miles per hour. Hopefully, the Obama and Park administrations are not just waiting passively for a test, but actually planning to use the next North Korean provocation to retake the momentum and reduce a growing threat.
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
by Michael Green