By Mark Tokola
North Korea’s claim to have recently tested a Hydrogen bomb is disputable because the explosion seems to have been no larger than during its 2013 test of a “conventional” nuclear device. That does not in itself diminish the seriousness of North Korea having conducted a fourth nuclear weapons test. Foreign policy questions tend to come in their own order. We now have an answer to the question: “Will North Korea conduct a fourth nuclear test and when?” Some commentators believed the test was inevitable and in fact a bit overdue with the first three tests having taken place in 2006, 2009, and 2013. Others believed that China was exerting sufficient pressure on North Korea to cause the fourth test to be further delayed or postponed indefinitely. This train of thought included the idea that North Korea might be wise to continue to develop nuclear weaponry and missile delivery systems without actually conducting another nuclear test. That would, the theory went, make it harder for the international community to take any steps that might get in the way of development of an effective nuclear weapon.
With the fourth test now behind us, the next question becomes: How should the international community react to the event? Answering that question requires answers to two preliminary questions: (1) How should we interpret the meaning of the test and its importance, and (2) What end are we trying to achieve with our reaction?
On the first question, there will be a temptation to minimize the importance of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. If the times were less stressful, the world’s foreign policy establishments might devote more time to the threat to peace posed by North Korea. In today’s world, we have already passed the threshold of peace being threatened in the Middle East, South Asia, North Africa, and even on European soil with the Ukraine crisis and the largest movement of refugees since the Second World War. The South China Sea is a source of unease, and the threat of domestic extremist radicalization is on front pages in Europe, Russia, China, and the United States, among other countries. It would take a great act of will to not succumb to the temptation to say that the North Korean test was anticipated, “just one of those things,” and to turn back to the fires already burning.
There is a second temptation to minimize the fourth nuclear test by tacitly accepting the highly abnormal state of North Korea as its normal state and to accommodate it. Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that he wished he had three boxes on his desk: “In,” “Out,” and “Too Hard.” Even if there were resources to devote to dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and crimes against humanity, solutions have been in short supply for decades. It is tempting to mentally relegate North Korea to the “Too Hard” box.
The third temptation is to consider North Korea as someone else’s problem. Americans are inclined to say that North Korea is really China’s problem to solve. China supposedly has the leverage to do something about it. Chinese (and now Russians) are equally inclined to say that the real dispute is between North Korea and the U.S.-ROK alliance. If the Americans and South Koreans want to reduce tensions, it is up to them to make the first moves. A variation is to say that the problem of North Korea is fundamentally up to North Koreans to solve. Outside influence is minimal compared to internal forces. Let them work it out.
These temptations should be resisted. North Korea’s openly-declared pursuit of nuclear weapons and its threat to deploy them against its neighbors or the United States merely if its dignity is impugned should not be taken lightly. For North Korea to fire a nuclear weapon would mean the end of the North Korean state, clearly an irrational action. But how many irrational actions by states have we witnessed during the past three decades? The odds of a nuclear weapon being fired through accident or miscalculation are also too high for comfort.
How should the international community react? Statements of condemnation have been swift. There will be a review in Seoul and Washington to see if any further sanctions might be taken to add to the pile of previous sanctions. The key point is that Kim Jong-un and his cohorts should experience concretely that the fourth nuclear test will be followed by consequences worse than they expected. That’s the only way to deter a fifth nuclear test or perhaps the next missile test.
There are possibilities. One would be to hamper North Korea’s trade by carrying out more frequent and intrusive inspections of North Korea’s shipping. Inspections carried out over the past few years have discovered contraband on North Korean ships. Further inspections would probably reveal more contraband and at a minimum would force North Korea to pay a higher price for its illegal activity, weapons test aside. Along these lines, a more vigorous program to pry the lid open on North Korea’s counterfeiting, drug trafficking, and illegal treatment of its overseas laborers might be in order. A stepped-up effort to combat North Korea’s illicit activities could in no way be considered “unfair.”
This would also seem an appropriate time to revive the idea of bringing the DPRK before the International Criminal Court for its crimes against humanity. Does this seem an inappropriate response to a nuclear test? It is not. Chinese and Russian representatives have resisted taking this step in the UN partly on the grounds that to do so would be “provocative” and might lead the DPRK to take countermeasures – such as conducting a fourth nuclear test. That argument should work both ways.
And what is the point of the world’s reaction to the fourth nuclear test? It would not be to promote regime change. The point should be to create consequences severe enough for Kim Jong-un and his cohorts to dissuade them from conducting future weapons tests. North Korea’s recent behavior indicates that threats to the Kim regime’s sources of income and legitimacy matter to them. Therefore, squeezing illicit revenues and asserting the need for North Korean regime members to be tried for their crimes matter. Otherwise, weapons tests will continue, and the threat to peace on the Korean Peninsula will increase.
Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from stephan’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.