Kim Jong Un has just carried out North Korea’s third nuclear test and the general mood among experts is, “There they go again.”
If history is any indicator, the international community’s response will crescendo, followed by near silence. Over the past two decades, alarm bells have quieted despite concerns over continued nuclear and missile testing because experts believe the North Korean nuclear threat is still in its infancy.
However, this test is a pivot point. It is a clearer indication that North Korea is gearing up to play offense in the new game of hardball. Pyongyang appears to be seeking recognition as a nuclear weapons state by creating a volatile situation on the Peninsula, thus forcing Washington, D.C., into peace talks to replace the armistice and remove U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula.
Pyongyang seems uninterested in rolling back its nuclear programs but rather in creating a peace regime institutionally irreversible and encoded in U.S. law.
The North has claimed its nuclear program is a deterrent against a “hostile U.S. policy.” The last two plutonium tests are in line with a defensive nuclear capability that also extracts concessions in six-party negotiations. Now, Pyongyang is exhibiting signs of a more offensive strategy.
North Korea kicked over the game by confirming uranium enrichment activities to an American scientist in November 2010. Unlike plutonium, uranium is hard to detect and verify, and a uranium-fueled bomb is easier to manufacture. Scientists have scratched their heads at Pyongyang’s choice of highly enriched uranium (HEU) over plutonium since a plutonium bomb is easier to miniaturize; it seems HEU is Pyongyang’s poison. Regardless, North Korea is bent on tipping a nuclear warhead on ballistic missiles that can reach the United States.
Kim has fired two rockets in his first year, tested a nuclear weapon, and vows to unleash more provocations while his propaganda machine posted a YouTube video of New York City under attack. It is only a matter of time and circumstance for more provocations – the crux of Pyongyang’s tactics and survival.
The young leader may assume peace talks would be most effective as equals – nuclear power to nuclear power. Kim had his constitution revised proclaiming North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, a step that is a clear but silent slap to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories.
In September 2005, a Six Party statement agreed a permanent peace regime would be discussed in a separate forum at an appropriate time per Pyongyang’s demands. But the clear understanding was that denuclearization had to come before a peace regime; Washington and Seoul’s position has not changed. Clearly, Pyongyang has.
The North Korean foreign ministry stated on Jan. 24, “There will be no more discussion over denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in the future although there will be talks for securing peace and security in the peninsula.”
So North Korea desires a peace mechanism while retaining its nuclear weapons, a shift in its decades-old public position. Pyongyang seems to suggest it no longer needs the Six Party Talks to extract food and energy concessions as it continues to develop its nuclear programs. Perhaps Kim has a hidden safety net and lifeline or is getting its confidence elsewhere, enabling him to weather greater sanctions and isolation. Or perhaps the young Kim is simply fearless and reckless.
Washington recently has had no appetite to re-engage Pyongyang, but South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye was initially more flexible toward resuming dialogue. However, the recent test slams the door on any diplomatic movement for the next few months, if not up to a year. It may be 2009 all over again – President Barack Obama’s extended hand is slapped by North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, the U.S. responds with sanctions, and a prolonged diplomatic vacuum ensues.
Dialogue will eventually need to resume when the dust settles, but the question is: Where and how do we begin? Complicating the problem further is the growing bond between the North Korea-Iran tag team.
The North Korean nuclear threat may still be in its infancy, and the worst may be yet to come. But it will creep up on us in the absence of a clear, long-term and proactive strategy. Reactive tactics won’t solve the problem.
We’ve seen the North Korean issue put on and off the back shelf; it is too soon to expect a Gorbechev-like figure to emerge from the North or a sudden regime collapse. As Kim strives to continue his predecessors’ legacy, Obama, too, has a chance to leave behind a legacy of his own; but to finally crack the vicious cycle, it should begin with presidential interest, political will and diplomatic ingenuity.Duyeon Kim is the senior non-proliferation and East Asia fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation; she is a former Foreign Affairs correspondent who covered the Six Party Talks as a TV journalist with South Korea’s Arirang TV. She wrote this for McClatchy-Tribune.