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Monday, October 25, 2021

They did it again

North Korea’s nuclear defiance can only be countered with China’s help

Written by K. Subrahmanyam |
May 27, 2009 1:01:27 am

The North Korean nuclear test of May 25 is a deliberate,brazen challenge to the international community. Pyongyang had angrily denounced the Security Council’s April statement condemning its “satellite” launch (which the Security Council believes was a cover for a ballistic missile test),and had announced its intention to resume nuclear testing.

It intimated the US State Department one hour before the test. When they conducted the first nuclear test in October 2006,they had given prior notice to the Chinese. According to Russian monitors,this test was roughly the same magnitude as the Nagasaki bomb. This makes it a vast improvement in yield,as international observers estimated the last test at only one kiloton yield. The North Korean announcement referred to this weapon test’s higher technology. While this may be a follow up of last month’s missile test and North Korea’s confrontation with the Security Council,it is also significant that this test follows the just concluded prep-com meeting to prepare for the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. North Korea is the only country which has been in and out of the NPT. It was a member at the time the NPT was extended indefinitely and unconditionally and also a party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It has not,however,signed the treaty. The North Korea issue is likely to dominate the 2010 review conference.

North Korea is unique in using the nuclear weapons to extract concessions from the international community and rivals Pakistan in its proliferation record. It is believed to have a proliferation relationship with Iran and Syria besides Islamabad. In September 2007,Israelis carried out an air-raid on a Syrian target which they claimed was a nuclear facility under development with North Korean help. While Pakistan claims to abide by international norms,North Korea makes no such claim. While there are concerns about Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of jihadis if Pakistan loses control,in the case of North Korea the international community has reason to worry whether Pyongyang will trade its weapons for financial considerations.

North Korea is the most serious challenge to the NPT,since it will be the role model for nations planning to break out of the NPT. In the Seventies,South Africa did breach the NPT but kept it a secret until it was ready to surrender the weapons and join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state. Therefore,it is natural if the international community wonders how the sponsors of the NPT are going to meet this challenge and whether Pyongyang will become a role model for Tehran. There is bound to be speculation whether,if North Korea is allowed to get away with its defiance,Israel will consider its own preemptive action against the Iranian nuclear effort as they carried out against Iraq and Syria.

Presdent Obama,whether he pursues a new policy of direct engagement or continues the earlier policy of dealing with North Korea through China,will have to deal with a nuclear state. Given Pyongyang’s record it is totally unrealistic to expect them to give up their weapons. They are likely to use it as an instrument of blackmail just as Pakistanis use terrorism to milk the international community. So long as the nuclear powers want to maintain such weapons as the legitimate currency of power the North Koreans will have their way,with China (the original proliferator) as an ultimate shield as it happens to be for Pakistan too. It is going to be a difficult test for the US to act tough with North Korea when it is compelled not to offend China because of the economic meltdown. It has been noted that the Chinese statement on the second test is milder than the first.

The NPT community has not so far dealt with a flagrant breach of the treaty,which they will now face in the next review conference. All the ideas on nuclear disarmament floated so far including President Obama’s,revolve around arms control,with nothing concrete in terms of disarmament. No weapon which is deemed legitimate is likely to be given up. The first step towards disarmament is the delegitimisation of a weapon as with chemical weapons in the Geneva Protocol 1925,which in turn led to their outlawing in 1993. The delegitimisation of nuclear weapons should start with a ‘no first use’ agreement among the nuclear weapon states,both within and outside NPT.

Unless India strongly advocates such a move,proclaimed it as doctrine,thereby helping reverse the present trend of maintaining the legitimacy of such weapons,the inevitability of other nations following the North Korean example cannot be discounted.

There will be concerns in certain quarters in India that this development may lead to the US making efforts to get the CTBT ratified and brought into force. That could happen,even though it might make nations which have nuclear ambitions to stay out of the treaty in the hope of following the North Korean example. On the other hand,weapon lobbies could step up pressure on the US administration,arguing that “rogue” states like North Korea highlight the need for US to develop bunker-buster bombs and reliable renewed warheads. This argument may also hinge on the degree of cooperation the US gets from China in dealing with North Korea.

Whatever the challenges facing President Obama,the fact is that the US is not in a position to influence North Korea’s future conduct. That depends entirely on China,the only country with some clout on Pyongyang. China is interested in ensuring that there is no instability in North Korea that could cause refugees to cross the border. Nor would it,perhaps,like the present regime in Pyongyang replaced in near future. In these circumstances the initial advantage appears to be with North Korea and initiating constructive engagement without a loss of face vis-à-vis Japan and South Korea is going to tax the ingenuity of both President Obama and Secretary Clinton. Japan has announced the setting up of a taskforce in the prime minister’s office. This time their reassessment of their security future will have to take into account the limitations of US extended deterrence against states like North Korea.

The North Korean test is the challenge to the entire international community,from an unprincipled,proliferating and dictatorial regime. The world will pay a heavy price if it is not effectively countered.

The writer is a senior defence analyst

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