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U.S. Surveys Shattered North Korea Policy

Prepared by: Michael Moran
Updated: October 10, 2006

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North Korea claims it has tested a nuclear weapon (CNN) "with indigenous wisdom and technology 100 percent" results. Details are sketchy but no one appears to be seriously challenging the claim, and seismic recordings from a monitoring station in China are suggestive of a manmade explosion. The test, which analysts say was fairly small (NYT), brings to eight the number of states which have conducted a nuclear blast, and marks a new stage of the Korean peninsula’s own nuclear crisis (FT).

Washington spoke in stark terms about the test's implications. In a press conference yesterday, President Bush said if North Korea tries to transfer nuclear weapons to other states, it would be considered a "grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable." But, as CFR Vice President Gary S. Samore notes, Pyongyang is little impressed by American threats. More pivotal are positions in Beijing and Seoul, which also had warned the North against this. The result, says Newsweek, is a diplomatic crisis and new pressure on Beijing, Seoul, and possibly Moscow, to get tougher with the rogue regime.

China issued a scathing denunciation of the tests (Xinhua). Beijing, in particular, may feel a need to stiffen its stance (Times of London). But the test, says Stratfor, an analytical website, may indicate China’s leverage on North Korea (Subscription only) is diminishing. “Beijing likes having North Korea as a dog on a leash, allowing it to bark and throwing it a bone if it barks a bit too much," Stratfor writes. "But this time, the dog has apparently broken its chain.”

The carrots may be withdrawn by Seoul, too. AP reported a scheduled aid shipment—part of the South’s policy of engaging Pyongyang—had been suspended, though no permanent or wider implications are so far implied. But those favoring rapprochement may feel spurned. The Korea Herald, a Seoul-based paper, writes in an op-ed that “North Korea as a nuclear power will find it even more difficult to survive under deepening international isolation leading to [more severe] poverty, and the constant threat of a possible preemptive attack.” South Korea supported a United Nations Security Council resolution passed this summer following North Korea's July 4 missile tests, and the new crisis could help heal ties with Japan, which have been strained by historical grievances. The test coincides with the healing visits of Japan’s tough-talking new leader, Shinzo Abe, to both Beijing and Seoul (Chosen Ilbo). Indeed, Tokyo and Beijing helped drive the UN debate leading to the adoption of a strong warning by the Security Council on Friday (Asahi Shimbun).

Other voices ask, "What it will take to wake up the West?" (National Review Online). Kommersant, a Russian business daily, warns Moscow to “stop protecting problem countries.” Former British Foreign Office Spokesman John Williams, writing in the Guardian's blog, says the time is now for China to prove it is a serious, responsible power. CFR Fellow Michael A. Levi warns in this interview that U.S. military action cannot be ruled out. Diplomacy is the best way to deal with North Korea, writes CFR President Richard N. Haass in Foreign Affairs, but Washington and its partners should agree on a package of economic and political sanctions if North Korea crosses a "red line, such as by testing a nuclear device."

Over the longer term, experts worry about pressure on North Korea’s neighbors to match its new nuclear capabilities. Japan, in particular, has the ability to move in this direction quickly, notes CFR’s Walter Russell Mead. This CATO brief looks at the “inevitable” march of nuclear arms across Asia. And here are issue briefs from the Nuclear Threat Initiative on Japan and South Korea. Writing in Asia Policy, Marcus Noland, a fellow at the Institute for International Economics, examines the possible economic impact of a Pyongyang nuclear test (PDF) on East Asia. North Korea could likely “build a crude nuclear warhead” and has enough plutonium for between four and thirteen nuclear weapons (PDF) say analysts David Albright and Paul Brannan of the Institute for Science and International Security. The Nuclear Threat Initiative provides a chronology of North Korea’s missile development program and maps of suspected nuclear enrichment sites.

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