North Korea: Testing International Resolve

What kind of message was North Korea seeking to send the world with its recent underground nuclear test?

May 28, 2009

What kind of message was North Korea seeking to send the world with its recent underground nuclear test?

North Korea’s May 25, 2009, underground nuclear test, followed by the launch of short-range missiles, constitutes the latest challenge to the Obama Administration.

It also suggests the need for enhanced and immediate coordination among Russia, China, the United States, South Korea and Japan.

Seismic evidence shows that North Korea’s official pronouncement of enhanced power and technology over its 2006 test may be true. The United States put the force of the blast at 4.7 on the Richter scale, Japan at 5.3, and Russia and South Korea around 5.1.

In contrast, South Korea registered the 2006 test at only 3.6, revealing a much more significant explosion Monday. Villagers from neighboring China reported feeling the aftershocks.

North Korea’s short-range missiles — which traveled 80 miles and are aimed at ratcheting up worries among U.S. and South Korean forces, as well as Japan — are less a technological feat. But they, too, are intended to intimidate — the third in a North Korean trifecta that began with the launch of a long-range missile on April 5, 2009.

In its unusual middle-of-the-night statement, the White House strongly condemned the nuclear test, asserting that North Korea was in “blatant defiance” of the United Nations Security Council.

Through its May 25 actions, North Korea reveals that its “military-first” hardliners are in control. Their objectives are to:

• Confront the Obama Administration with the strongest possible challenge in order to win concessions and project a firm stance. In particular, the hardliners wanted to send a signal in advance of future U.S.-North Korea bilateral talks, which were discussed by Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth with Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo in recent weeks.

Pyongyang has now offered President Obama the first of his 3 a.m. wake-up calls alluded to in the U.S. presidential campaign.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in China on May 25, 2009, noted “great alarm” over North Korea’s “clear violation” of Security Council Resolution 1718, prohibiting North Korea from testing.

The June 4 trials of two U.S. journalists who crossed into North Korea from China will present Washington with its next challenge from Pyongyang. Coming on the 20th anniversary of Beijing’s Tiananmen crack-down, the “trials” remind Washington of continued affronts in Northeast Asia.

• Sow discord among the other six-party talk members, who have failed to come up with a common response.

In contrast to the White House statement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov registered “concern” and China was initially mute — though a Monday afternoon Security Council meeting saw more unified statements of concern over North Korea’s actions.

For its part, Japan reacted with alarm. Calls are mounting in Tokyo for much harder responses to Pyongyang, which could prompt a regional arms race.

In South Korea, the won and markets declined, further shaking a country that was already reeling from the suicide of former populist President Roh Moo Hyun on May 23. For successor Lee Myung Bak, the North Korean test is a further challenge on top of recent disputes with Pyongyang over the joint Kaesong industrial zone.

• Impress upon the North Korean population and international observers that they remain firmly in control, despite lingering concerns over the impact of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s August stroke.

Kim was this spring “reappointed” as head of the National Defense Commission by North Korea’s assembly. And on the all-powerful commission designee list was a placeholder for one of his sons — the first indicator that a succession may be in play.

The handoff of an enhanced nuclear capability, less than two months after North Korea’s long-range missile traveled 2,000 miles, seals Kim’s legacy from a North Korean perspective. But former President Bill Clinton has suggested that Pyongyang may be masking discord from within.

One certainty is that through the test, military leaders are seeking to stifle international conjecture about the regime’s solidity — this after recent rumors of a Chinese plan to position People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces across North Korea in the event of a rapid disintegration of the regime.

The onus of an international response now falls largely on China and Russia — both of whom resisted tighter sanctions after the April missile test and calls by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice for stronger wording.

Pelosi’s U.S. Congressional delegation traveling in China and others have urged Beijing to get Pyongyang back to the table for multilateral talks. Pyongyang announced last month it was walking away from the six party talks, though Beijing and Moscow cautioned others in the dialogue that Pyongyang would be back.

What needs to occur among the U.S., its allies Japan and South Korea, and dialogue partners China and Russia is a seriously enhanced commitment toward solving rather than simply managing the North Korea problem.

Five party talks should ensue — North Korea has insisted that the six party talks are more 5+1 anyway — with the major players convening to address how to push North Korea towards denuclearization. They also need some serious contingency planning if those efforts fail.

The five parties should also posit regional models of change for North Korea. One example: nearby Mongolia, which on May 25 saw the election of Democratic Party candidate Ts. Elbegdorj as President following a vibrant campaign and high voter turn-out.

Two decades ago, Mongolia, too, was a Communist outpost. It embraced economic change, opening up to the outside world and labeling itself a nuclear weapons free zone.

Isolationist North Korea is a much tougher case — that is certain. The international community needs to be ready, both to ease coordination and avert disagreement among the great powers, as well as to ease the cost burden of eventual integration that will befall South Korea.

Takeaways

Pyongyang has now offered President Obama the first of his 3 a.m. wake-up calls alluded to in the U.S. presidential campaign.

The five parties should posit regional models of change for North Korea. One example: Nearby Mongolia, which recently held a vibrant election with high voter turnout.

Villagers from neighboring China reported feeling the aftershocks in the wake of the underground nuclear test.

In contrast to the White House statement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov registered "concern" and China was initially mute.