Monday, October 09, 2006

What does North-Korea's test mean?

By Richard Norman

Much has been made of North Korea’s supposed instability. While no one would deny it is one of the poorest and most unlucky countries on earth, it has been ruled consecutively and with an iron-fist by the Kim family for more than fifty years in a dynastic communist dictatorship. A politically unstable country is roiled by coups, civil wars, or an aggressive, revolutionary opposition. These things do not exist in North Korea, and while it is fashionable to imagine an economic meltdown bringing down the Kim dynasty, the North’s leadership has already shown such massive disregard for the welfare of its citizens that it is becoming possible to imagine Kim contently presiding over a nation of twenty-three million corpses. Kim Jong-il has tight control over the military and all domestic media, and he retains a spectacular cult of personality which has a back-story that is essentially all of Korea’s post-WWII history. And now he has proven to the world he possesses nuclear weapons.

Monday morning, Korean time, North Korea announced it had successfully tested a nuclear weapon. Immediate international reaction was similar to the reaction last week when North Korea announced it would soon test a nuclear weapon. Japan’s new prime minister called the action, “Absolutely unacceptable,” again, while a Pentagon spokesman was reported as saying, "If there was a test, obviously it would further isolate them from the international community,"
similar in tone to Rumsfeld’s comments on the situation last week.

Though more official reaction will be available in the next few hours, military action on the part of the United States, Japan or South Korea is extremely unlikely considering how little is known about North Korean nuclear capabilities and how much is at stake. The most likely course of action will simply be to sit and wait and worry (also, coincidentally, the unofficial Bush policy on Iran) while trying to drum up support for further UN sanctions.

If this nuclear test does have major military ramification, as it almost certainly does not, what then is its significance? The larger lesson is that if a nation is placed outside of the international system and its regime is made to feel insecure—as North Korea was, as Saddam Hussein was, and as Iran has been—no amount of carrots or sanctions will convince such a regime to stop their pursuit of major deterrents like nuclear weapons. (And if, in the case of Saddam Hussein, the regime is incapable of acquiring such deterrents, then they will bluff until the bitter end). Carrots have not worked. And neither have sticks. The United States may try to remove hostile regimes from the equation, but in today’s world when you invade a country to topple its government you become responsible for the security of its people. And you are tied down while other major powers are free to pursue their conflicting interests.

Clearly there is no easy solution to the problem. The good news, however, is that these “evil” regimes seek to acquire nuclear weapons not to hasten Armageddon but to ensure their own survival. Which indicates, at a minimum, rationality.