The North Korean Nuclear Test
The stakes in Asia of the North Korean nuclear test
Chat with Bui Xuan Quang, Director, Center for Asian Research of the University of Paris (X-Nanterre). Wednesday, October 11th, 2006.
Should North Korea’s nuclear tests be viewed as a provocation? If the answer is yes, how is the situation different from the nuclear tests ordered by President Chirac at the beginning of his term of office?
First of all, you have to keep your wits about you as well as patience and a sense of responsibility. The watchword here is arm-waving, a call for help, and an admission of weakness rather than provocation. When Mr. Chirac took power in 1995, it was the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan and Asia viewed the resumption of French nuclear testing as a lack of compassion and understanding of the historical symbolism of this cruel anniversary.
How does this test change the equation for Koreans for whom, whether from North or South, the situation is already difficult?
It changes nothing. The South Koreans enjoy growth and prosperity while providing generous assistance to the North. In Asia, as elsewhere, the equation of life involves harmonizing needs, interests and values in a defined space-time. The North Korean president seems indifferent to this equation, which his people must deal.
What position does North Korea now occupy in Asia with its nuclear weapon?
An insignificant one. Nuclear arms have never represented a sign of power in the eyes of Asians, who have suffered from them, with the Japanese in the forefront. The test reflects herd mentality because, in the 21st century, power resides in influence, not in an armed or military demonstration.
Why did Koizumi, the former Japanese Prime Minister, go to Yasukuni? What possible advantage did that represent? Doesn’t that play into the hands of the North Koreans? Or was it just a simple blunder?
Oh, there are rarely simple blunders in Asia. Mr. Koizumi’s actions were calculated down to the last millimeter in the full knowledge of the symbolic meaning of the gesture and memory. They were planned as part of the succession of Mr. Koizumi and the selection of the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, to the extent that the reputation of Mr. Abe is one of a conservative and a hawk, and have marked the path of future negotiations to normalize relations with the two Koreas and China. As proof of this, Mr. Abe is on a diplomatic mission to Beijing and Seoul now.
The West suffers from the calendar syndrome, in which appointments announced in advance facilitate the ideological, political and diplomatic manipulations surrounding them. Kim Jong-il must have carefully scrutinized international and national agendas to exploit the Japanese mission to China and South Korea, of Japan’s presidency of the Security Council, and the impaired vision of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan and it is War on Terror. It was a thief’s opportunity. Kim Jong-il stole the media stage and put the spotlight on himself at a time when the international community regards North Korea as a “rogue” or failed state.
If it turns out that North Korea is on the path to a nuclear arsenal, what are the stakes of this rearrangement of the cards in the regional balance of power and the reaction of China?
The question of whether North Korea really has the bomb is secondary, even a non-event. Asia has become accustomed to living with the atom bomb over the last half-century. One more nuclear power does not change the regional balance of power in terms of domination. The North Korean test is a message that China, proclaimed as the 21st century power, is weak: the acquisition of the right of veto in the Security Council by China is a diplomatic transaction in the interests of the Chinese but in no way defends the interests of China’s partners. Moreover, the North Korean gesture holds the power of Russia, which also has veto power in the Security Council, as negligible. In fact, the Security Council, the United Nations and the UN Secretary General seem, in the eyes of a country on which they have designs, completely incidental.
Why did North Korea act in this way? What are the political, economic and strategic reasons for this ratching up of aggression toward the United States and Japan?
Again, it’s the calendar syndrome. North Korea has continually lost face since the end of the Korean War. For example, North Korea didn’t even qualify for the 2002 World Cup, organized by South Korea and Japan. It was reduced to flailing about on the day of the Germany-South Korea semi-final by ordering commandos into South Korea and an insignificant warship off the Japanese coast, much to the amusement of Asians.
Even the ballistic tests over the Sea of Japan killed only fish. But they drew attention to the dreadful living conditions inside the autistic North Korean state and used and abused the generosity of the South Koreans, the international community and international agencies. Raising then calling the bet. North Korea is familiar with the Asian definition of crisis: block coupled with opportunity. It plays on both: it is a good student of communist rhetoric: negotiate while fighting, fight while negotiating ("danh dàm, dàm danh"). Two irons in the fire and the winner is the player who makes the first move.
What about the North Korean people themselves? Are they for or against nuclear weapons for their country?
A generic answer would be this. South Korea, while participating in the Group of Six negotiations, is well aware that if the North were to acquire a nuclear weapon, then when the time comes for reunification, it will be a Korean weapon. In the calculation of opportunity, one should keep a close eye on the line of action adopted by the UN Secretary General designate, Ban Ki-moon, a Harvard graduate, who is not insensitive to the interests of the United Statea and the Security Council on the world stage. The North Korean President is not indifferent to this sequence of timing and dates.
What is the goal sought by North Korean with the testing? Civilian, military or expansionist?
If you spend 50 years then end up in a state as reduced as that of North Korea, this is proof that North Korean “expansionism” is an international commodity. The testing has no military, civilian or expansionist purpose --is a call for help, a demand for ransom payable in foodstuffs and blackmail to extort public generosity.
What type of sanctions should the international community invoke against North Korea?
Did it really test a nuclear device? On the strategic chessboard, North Korea has shown itself to be an astute player. The strategy of Chinese chess [Xiangqi] is to "sacrifice the pawn to win a turn". The effect of announcing a North Korean nuclear test, while creating much ado about nothing, was a test of international sangfroid. In soccer parlance, just enough to earn a yellow card without being ejected from the game. As to sanctions, it should not be forgotten that North Korea prefers South Korean wealth and generosity to Chinese firmness, which it is now evaluating in a diplomatic tango. Sanctions would be acceptable, provided they are proportional, as the Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations declared. That says everything.
Do you think that other nations will now pursue a path towards acquiring nuclear weapons, following in the footsteps of Iran and North Korea?
The parallel with Iran is above all pedagogical for Tehran. To be a nuclear power in the 21st century only satisfies citizen pride or national vanity. You can have a bomb…but you have to acquire the means to deliver it. Few countries have the possibility of undertaking the long march. On the other hand, within the context of Asian and global balance of power, you have to take a good look at countries like Indonesia (which stepped aside to allow Pakistan the honor of becoming the first Islamic power with the bomb), Thailand (a pivotal nation in Southeast Asia and Malaysia (an emerging economic power).
Since military action is fraught with complexity, what other levers exist to put an obstacle in the way of Pyongyang ? Can you strangle it economically or cause the regime to collapse from within?
In the 21st century, it is mistaken to us a lens from a prior century to interpret international realities. Gunboat diplomacy has its limits and it’s dangerous to ride the tiger without knowing how to get off.
Europe, which has invested so much in the Iranian crisis, seems silent on that of North Korea. How do you explain that?
Europe is far from Asia, which expects symbolism stronger than market research, a refined taste for oriental antiquities or an unconscious forgetfulness of the past.
If I’ve understood you correctly, there is really no reason to be worried and the test is merely a laughable communications gesture?
There is always a reason for vigilance and responsibility. No one, especially the North Koreans, intended to be ridiculous. But the interpretation of this event puts into perspective the cost-efficiency relationship of the North Korean gesture. Just another way to prove that the world is an echo chamber and that attention focused on one of the globe’s hot spots must be reinterpreted within the dynamics of a global quest for security.
Do you doubt the reality of the North Korean test? That’s what you seem to be saying. What makes you say this?
The experts…well, we'll have to wait for confirmation that the North Korean test was indeed nuclear. The world is experiencing such nervousness that each spike in tensions suggests the worst. However, even if the North Korean test was unsuccessful, it was an excellent opportunity for isolated Pyongyang to turn the spotlight on itself.
With all due respect, I find that you've given a lightweight analysis of the crisis. For several years, we’ve been hearing reassuring words about the “North Korean menace”. Will there not come a time when this menace proves to be genuinely concrete and will we recognize that when it occurs?
No international reality is approached lightly. But any appreciation of Asian temporality tells the analyst that he is looking at a veritable call for help from North Korea. Kim Jong-il is also approaching from the other side of the mountain. Problems relating to succession are raging in Pyongyang right now. One should be aware of the interests of the North Korean Army, which has been cooped up for fifty years. This aspect deserves greater attention.
Does a relationship exist between Iran and North Korea on military and economic matters and in what way does it exist?
There are observers who see a link between these two nations. These two countries are reciprocal customers for conventional weapons. But national interests are always the priority for both Iranian and North Korean leaders.
Thank you for your reassuring and sensible words. But I believe that a unilateral strategy -a concert of nations-, which seems to underlie your analysis, is far from reality. Would you, as perhaps an exercise in style, develop what is the nuisance threat of this episode?
That is a banal formulation, but pertinent. Today, the international community, left only with after-acquired property, can be defined as multilaterally bilateral. North Korea, as well as every other actor, it so conscious of it that it holds action by the current UN Secretary General negligible and the future influence of the UN as inconsequential. I see it as a wakeup call for international monitoring rather than an annoyance threat, albeit local.
Japan has declared that it is in favor of invoking Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows for armed intervention, among other things. Is this foreseeable?
It is an oft-suggested scenario but Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter it is so difficult to mobilize that it is really a virtual weapon of limited utility.
North Korea does’t have a strategic vehicle to carry the bomb. But couldn’t it use a dirty bomb?
In Asia they know that if you spit in the air, it falls back on your nose.