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The Impact of North Korea's Nuclear Test

Rohit Pattnaik was a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • October 10, 2006

    The underground nuclear test conducted by North Korea yesterday has established it as the ninth member of the nuclear club. There had been speculation, particularly since the failed test of a long-range missile, that North Korea would move to a nuclear test. It had warned about the impending test, and quite simply had nothing to lose. From a North Korean point of view, it was clear that the failed missile test demonstrated weakness and another missile test in the near term was unlikely to reduce international pressure on the regime. To North Korea that probably meant it needed to try something else, and a nuclear test was the only option to step things up a notch. For years, diplomats assumed that the North was using that ambiguity to trade away its nuclear capability for recognition, security guarantees, aid and trade with the West. But in the end, the country's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, seems to have given in to the concept of the army first doctrine or "Songun" which placed his regime's safety over all else. The immediate effect is that there is a lot of tough talking. In the long term there isn't realistically much that the rest of the world can do about this, given that the international community has very few options. What is clear is that the ninth member of the nuclear club is also the most unstable and could have been stopped. Nuclear proliferation by the Pakistan cartel, which speeded up the North Korean nuclear programme, was ignored by the global community, and a window of opportunity to negotiate away North Korea's bomb was ignored as well. The consequence - a nuclear North Korea that will change the security dynamics of the region.

    North Korea has pursued its national interest of regime survival in a manner that will guarantee it - going nuclear! The American threat of a nuclear attack both during and after the Korean War may have shaped the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung's decision to launch his own nuclear weapons programme. While the programme itself was begun in the 1960s with Soviet help, during the next two decades it was China that provided various kinds of support. A major milestone was achieved in 1986 when Pyongyang began operating the newly constructed 20 megawatt reactor near the city of Yongbyon.The CIA estimates that the Yongbyon reactor and the 700-800 MW reactor that is under construction at Taechon could together generate about 275 kilograms of plutonium per year if operated at full capacity.

    Pyongyang's nuclear efforts received a boost from Pakistan and the 'father' of its nuclear bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who supplied enrichment equipment and perhaps even warhead designs. Khan who had shot to global notoriety for stealing nuclear technology from the Netherlands built up a global network of vendors and manufacturers to run a profitable nuclear black market from Pakistan. US intelligence agencies, which monitored Khan's network did little to halt the traffic, apparently because they did not wish to compromise sources and methods as well as not to jeopardize US-Pakistan relations. For what were evidently short-term gains, an opportunity to prevent nuclear proliferation was squandered.

    The failure of the Bush administration to engage with the North is unlike the approach adopted by the previous Clinton administration, which aimed at getting Pyongyang to the negotiating table to work out a solution, even thought it was not terribly successful in this regard. President Bush's first-term policies failed to move North Korea towards the goal of disarmament and in fact proved counterproductive. Calling the North an "outpost of tyranny" and part of the "axis of evil" increased its already substantial fears and paranoia about the United States. Hardliners in the US administration believed that isolation, pressure and sanctions would cause the North to collapse and did not believe in rewarding it for any positive steps it might undertake. This resulted in the North Koreans expelling IAEA observers from Yongbyon in 2002 and removing 8,000 nuclear fuel rods that were under supervision. Its exit from the NPT in 2003 should have been a warning signal about its intent and lack of sincerity on negotiations. Instead, with the United States focused on Iraq, the window of opportunity to force Pyongyang to agree to the termination of its nuclear programme was lost.