Consequences abound in N. Korea’s obsession with nuclear weapons

Consequences abound in N. Korea’s obsession with nuclear weapons

Kim Jong UnThe passage of a resolution by the U.N. Security Council on Jan. 22 condemning North Korea’s missile launch of Dec. 12, 2012, and expanding sanctions against the country, has brought about a defiant and ferocious response from Pyongyang.

North Korea issued a series of pronouncements declaring the nullification of the Sept. 19, 2005, agreement on denuclearization, the end of further talks on denuclearization including the six-party talks, and vowing to strengthen its nuclear and missile capabilities by continuing rocket launching and nuclear testing, which North Korea declared explicitly as targeted against the United States.

That North Korea would respond with fury to a U.N. resolution was anticipated, but the barrage of intensified anti-American rhetoric and the blunt declaration to continue the quest for nuclear weapons with ICBM capabilities, especially at this juncture in time, probably came as a surprise to many analysts.

Given North Korea’s explicit renunciation of the agreement on denuclearization, it would be impossible for the United States to entertain any thought of altering the existing policy variously labeled “manage and contain” or “sanctions with limited dialogue” toward a policy of dialogue and engagement. For South Korea, despite President-elect Park Geun-hye’s professed willingness to resume talks with the North without preconditions and to improve the relations with North Korea through a confidence-building process, she will be constrained from pursuing a conciliatory policy of engagement.

It will be so especially since she has insisted she will not tolerate the North’s nuclear program and will deal sternly with North Korean provocations. Similarly for Japan, it is inconceivable for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to consider moderating his hard-line stance toward North Korea.

The impact of North Korea’s policy pronouncements on the policies of China and Russia will be no less significant.

Both China and Russia will see North Korean actions as detrimental to their respective interests and will likely oppose North Korea’s actions which would be certain to jeopardize peace and stability in the Asian region.

There is no doubt the United States, along with Japan and South Korea, will attempt to heighten the severity of current sanctions and the rigor of their implementation. That would increase the probability and the scope of further North Korean provocations.

It has become evident that the North Korean leadership is determined to continue, at any cost, its drive toward the enhancement of nuclear and missile capabilities.

The policies the United States has pursued over the span of some 20 years have indisputably failed to achieve the declared objective of denuclearizing North Korea.

The Obama administration will likely continue professing its commitment to seek complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and programs.

However, the United States has not found an effective formula that would justify a commitment of national resources above a justifiable and politically sustainable risk.

Many analysts hold the view that a primary goal of the United States has been to slow the proliferation of nuclear weapons rather than to dismantle the North’s nuclear programs. It is important to point out that the perceived inability of the United States to effectively block a significant enhancement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capability has led to serious security concerns on the part of Asian allies.

There is a growing concern about U.S. intentions and capability to protect security interests of U.S. allies in view of the growing threats posed by North Korea’s WMD capabilities.

Reinforcing this is concern over China’s growing military power and its propensity to employ the coercive instruments of that power with regard to maritime and territorial disputes.

Among some South Korean and Japanese defense intellectuals there is an increasingly vociferous call for a policy of “balance” or “equidistance” between the United States and China and the need for an independent defense posture.

One conceivable future scenario may be a series of incidents reflective of the rising tension precipitated by the actual conduct of the North’s third nuclear test and subsequent countermeasures taken by the U.N. Security Council.

There will also be additional individual sanctions imposed by the United States, Japan and South Korea. Minor military clashes of low intensity between the two Koreas may occur in the near term, but they may be contained to a manageable level due to cooperative intervention by the United States and China.

Following an interlude extending for many months with the level of tension subsiding, the United States may be able to begin bilateral talks with North Korea to work out the terms of agreement on core issues of mutual interest for the midterm period.

Japan and South Korea should attempt to hold separate bilateral talks with North Korea, concurrently with possible talks between the United States and North Korea on issues of mutual interests.

These three sets of bilateral talks could proceed with the aim of concluding agreements at about the same time.

Without the option of using direct U.S. military force in the absence of a serious emergency, and no realistic prospect for regime change in North Korea, the Obama administration would have few viable options.

Given those conditions, it is likely that the United States will seek to return to dialogue with North Korea.

Additionally, there are major considerations that could compel the Obama administration to engage North Korea in direct talks. There is concern about the growing nuclear capability of North Korea, especially a uranium enrichment program that would enable manufacturing of nuclear weapons in larger quantities and enhance the possibility of proliferation.

Also, there is concern about the North’s possible development of a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could be coupled with the development of long-range ICBMs. Furthermore, there is the risk of being drawn into a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula. The sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island made U.S. policy planners sensitive to the possibility that similar provocations by the North would lead to a South Korean military response, necessitating U.S. military intervention in support of a treaty obligation to a threatened ally.

Any movement toward meaningful dialogue and engagement, however, will presume a sincere North Korean recommitment to the goal of de-nuclearization. Yet, North Korea’s recent policy statements leave no room for such recommitment, making any move toward a policy of engagement improbable.

Unless one subscribes to the optimistic view that North Korea may reverse its declared policy, it appears that North Korea has essentially crossed the Rubicon.

Young C. Kim is a professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He is an expert on Japanese and Korean domestic politics and foreign relations, Russian relations with East Asia, and East Asian foreign relations.


*This article originally appeared in the Asahi Shimbun. The article can be viewed here.