As it has threatened, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, posing a fresh challenge to the international community. The official KCNA news service reported that Pyongyang used a “miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously,” and that the test “did not pose any negative impact on the surrounding ecological environment.” Most nations detected the test as a seismic activity around the same location where Pyongyang conducted tests in 2006 and 2009. Although the test this time was bigger, the bomb exploded was smaller than the one that was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.
The Hiroshima reference is not amiss here; Japan had immediately reacted to the test. Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, told Parliament that the country was considering “its own actions, including sanctions, to resolve this and other issues.” But the threat may be empty, because Japan’s trade with the “hermit kingdom” is extremely limited; indeed, its allies led by the United States have stopped short of imposing a naval blockade on North Korea, or any other move that could revive open hostilities between the two Koreas, since an armistice was declared on the Korean Peninsula 60 years ago.
Moreover, while the Obama administration had threatened to take additional action to penalize North Korea through the United Nations if it made good its threat to conduct a third test, there are few sanctions left to apply. And China would not cooperate with such sanctions. It could cut off oil and other aid from North Korea, but despite issuing repeated warnings, it has nothing to offer by way of forcing its ally to back down. It has always feared instability and chaos in North Korea more than the latter’s growing nuclear and missile capability.
Perhaps the United States and its allies should now consider drastic measures apart from condemnation, if only to compel China to act more decisively on its ally. So far, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has been right—that China, despite its strident warnings, would look the other way if his country went ahead with the test amid protests from the rest of the world.
But, of course, along with the drastic measures should come a readiness for negotiation.
In any case, the world that fervently hopes for disarmament has now something more to worry about. It is common knowledge that the results of North Korea’s third test are eagerly awaited by Iran. While the two previous tests used reprocessed plutonium from defunct nuclear reactors, the latest involved enriched uranium. Iran is itself pursuing a uranium enrichment program and the two countries are known to be sharing nuclear knowledge.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that positions would harden and that the international community must take a firmer position against North Korea. Presupposing all of this would be the need to rethink the optimistic view at the start of his rule that the young Mister Kim would be different from his late father and grandfather, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, because he had stayed for a time in Switzerland, where he dressed in Dennis Rodman jerseys, played video games and befriended Westerners, and that the experience would nudge him to move his “rogue state” out of its isolation and bring it into fresher air.
This optimism overlooks the fact that while Kim may have an experience of the free world, he basically grew up in a police state whose internal security apparatus employs no less than 300,000 people and largely operates to keep a tight control over the population, no matter how wretched it is. It also ignores the fact that Kim is pandering to the military bosses in order to get their loyalty, if only to maintain his hold on power and perpetuate his dynasty.
And even if the nuclear tests were merely to placate the military and firm up the young Kim’s hold on power so that he would be in a better position to liberalize the economy, democratize the political system, and implement other reforms in the future, it does not seem likely that the military would welcome any hint of reform since it would mean self-annihilation. For now then, it seems remote that North Korea will shed its pariah status. It deserves condemnation. Still and all, this should not deter the world’s nuclear-armed states from pursuing the ultimate dream of disarmament.