home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

Responding to North Korea's Nuclear Test

The Age, 28 May 2009

With this week's nuclear test North Korea, as so often in the past, has acted for reasons that are largely impenetrable to present the international community with choices that are for the most part unpalatable.

It is difficult to respond in a cool and measured way in the face of behaviour as irresponsible and provocative as this, and so obviously in defiant contempt of Security Council authority. But a response that keeps the door open for negotiations, while being tough-minded about containment, is the best available.

There are almost as many interpretations as to why Pyongyang acts as it does as there are analysts, but four main kinds of explanation each have some plausibility.

First there is the view, popular in conservative circles in the US and certainly in Japan, where I am at present, that North Korea is absolutely determined to become a nuclear-armed state, able through its deterrent capability to insulate the country and its governing regime from almost any possible attack.

On this analysis, all previous negotiations have been conducted simply to buy time, and the tests have been about developing relevant weapons and delivery system technology to credible minimum standard.

The second explanation is that cash-starved Pyongyang sees a lucrative international market for its fissile material, bomb and missile technology and hardware, and its tests have been designed not least to demonstrate to potential customers that it has saleable products.

The third, much more widely held, is that North Korea's weapons program has always been primarily about creating negotiating coin for assured physical and economic security, with periodic misbehaviour aimed at pushing up the stakes, and compelling the payment — to achieve its denuclearisation — of an ever higher price in aid, trade, investment and security guarantees.

The fourth explanation has gained increasing currency since Kim Jong-il's illness and the jockeying for succession. It is that the most recent fireworks have been designed essentially for domestic consumption, not only to wow the cold and hungry crowds, but to encourage hard-line military support for the Dear Leader's chosen family successor.

Ultimately, with the data so slight and ambiguous, both policy makers and pundits have to rely on instincts, as forged by experience. My own are that the third and fourth explanations between them give the best guide to what is going on, and the best steer, accordingly, as to how now to respond.

If North Korea wants to build a nuclear arsenal capable of deterring or overwhelming any possible attack — let alone initiating one, which nobody seriously believes it would be suicidal enough to do — it has quite some distance to go. It does have enough plutonium now to build probably six to eight bombs, and significant short-to-medium range missile capability. But there is real scepticism among experts (including the Chinese and South Koreans with whom my commission has been consulting in the past few days) whether it has fully mastered weaponisation technology, and in particular what is needed to put reliable warheads on reliable missiles.

The point is simply that North Korea's own national interests — including its stated target of being a "strong and prosperous country" by 2012 — are, overwhelmingly, best served by folding up its circus tent and getting back to serious negotiations. Implementing the September 2005 statement of principles agreed by the six-party talks participants (US, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and North Korea) would leave everyone better off, and Pyongyang knows it.

The trouble so far is that North Korea has wanted to keep its weapons and fissile material until the others fully delivered on economic assistance, credible security assurances and normalised political relations, a sequence quite unacceptable, understandably, particularly to Japan, South Korea and the US.

But it is hardly beyond the wit of the negotiators to identify an "actions for actions" scenario that would break this logjam, and all sides know it.

If these are the realities, it makes sense in trying to resolve the current impasse for the primary objective of the international community to continue to keep alive the chance of resumed negotiations, through the six-party talks — or bilateral US-North Korea talks, which Pyongyang has always preferred, under that umbrella.

That approach should certainly not, however, mean any reluctance to stop any possible transfer by North Korea to other states or actors of any nuclear material or technology in its possession, for which the best operational instrument — imperfect though it is because it is not treaty-based — remains the Proliferation Security Initiative, now with more than 90 subscribers, including this week, in a breakthrough, South Korea. Nor should it inhibit the UN Security Council passing an appropriately sharp condemnatory resolution, making absolutely clear the unacceptability of Pyongyang's violation of its resolutions and the long-observed global moratorium against nuclear testing.

It should perhaps, however, give pause to any move for major new UN sanctions — previous measures have proved largely ineffective and much sterner ones would probably be counterproductive.

In getting out of holes, ladders are usually more useful than shovels.

Gareth Evans, foreign minister from 1988 to 1996, is president of the International Crisis Group and co-chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament.