A Nuclear Test for the Obama Administration

CFR’s Northeast Asia expert Sheila A. Smith says it is imperative for the United States to make it clear that it will not accept a nuclear North Korea. The UN’s nonproliferation regime is also facing a moment of truth, she says.

May 25, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

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In the aftermath of the latest North Korean nuclear test, CFR’s Sheila A. Smith says it is imperative for the United States to make it clear "it will not accept a nuclear North Korea." Smith, an expert on Northeast Asia, says the test is also a moment of truth for China and the UN Security Council--to which China and the United States belong--and their commitment to global nonproliferation. U.S. allies Japan and South Korea "will need a very clear and unambiguous statement that the United States remains committed to their defense and will keep them safe," she says.  "And then there is the broader question of how we mobilize both allies and colleagues in Northeast Asia with the broader global nonproliferation initiative."

North Korea announced Monday morning Korean time that it had detonated another underground nuclear explosion, its second since 2006. What do you make of this?

In trying to negotiate with the North Koreans, they have been pretty straightforward on what they were going to do. Again in this case, just as in 2006, they announced they were going to conduct another nuclear test. On April 5, they tested a long-range missile. So we all have been expecting another nuclear test to come. I think the precedent of 2006 with several months in between the missile tests of July and the nuclear test in October led a number of us to expect a similar spread in time. It surprised a number of us that the latest events were only six weeks apart. It was a bit quicker than many of us expected.

I think many people had assumed that with President Barack Obama coming into office the North Koreans would want to see if there was something negotiable to their advantage with the United States. Instead they took a kind of "stick it in your eye" approach, right?

Right. There are several factors here that may be at play. The first of course is what is going on internally in North Korea. Most of the people who are very keen watchers of the internal dynamics of Pyongyang feel very strongly--and most of our South Korean colleagues feel that way--that there is a succession under way and the succession dynamics have affected both the timing of this test but also the general hard-line position that the North Koreans seem to be taking, vis-à-vis the negotiations. That is one of the elements that is different. Kim Jong-Il has had a stroke and the argument is that he is now setting up his third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his possible successor. We don’t have intimate knowledge of this, but that is the opinion in South Korea and Japan as well.

Assuming there is a succession going on, why this approach, rather than a more evenhanded conciliatory one?

"[T]he succession dynamics [inside North Korea] have affected both the timing of this test but also the general hard-line position that the North Koreans seem to be taking, vis-à-vis the negotiations."

This is all very speculative. Those taking that view say that the idea is to establish the credibility of the youngest son, the successor, and to keep the military convinced that they need to go along with this succession. The military seems to play a significant role in this decision. And what we can read of the internal situation in Pyongyang, demonstrating the nuclear capability is a powerful tool for regime credibility and survivability. You have to think that internally, having a nuclear capability for a regime that needs a fairly repressive demonstration of its power is a fairly plausible argument. And I think everybody in the regime believes the succession itself is a key driver here.

In the United States, many people on both sides of the political fence believe that North Korea needs to be serious about carrying out its commitments it made in negotiations with the United States. North Korea needs to provide a clear verifiable nuclear disarmament plan and it hasn’t done this, and so it has dropped the ball on the commitment it already made. I do think there might have been some calculus in North Korea that it would get a better deal or might start over with the new administration, but there has been a consistent and clear message to Pyongyang that this resetting is not going to happen.

North Korea also says it does not want to go back to the Six-Party Talks [North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Japan, China, and Russia], a slap not only at the United States but also at China, the host for the talks, and the others.

Exactly. Here is where it will take some time to tease out what the intent of the nuclear test was. There was a lot of speculation in recent weeks that what was really going on was North Korea not wanting to scuttle the Six-Party Talks, but to get the Obama administration into a bilateral conversation on how to break the impasse. There was a lot of conversation about whether the North Koreans would speak to a high-level emissary. For instance, would the capture of the two reporters on the border, who worked for Al Gore’s TV channel, provide an opportunity for a more high-level communication between the new Obama administration and Pyongyang. There was some disagreement among analysts in allied capitals whether a bilateral moment had arrived and whether it would be useful or not. The latest test ends that speculation.

The last time the UN Security Council met in April after the missile test, or satellite launch, however you want to describe it, they really didn’t reach any harsh conclusions.

Crisis Guide: The Korean Peninsula

The missile test took place on April 5 and it was basically announced by the Russians and Chinese that they would not endorse another sanctioning resolution at the UN Security Council meeting in April. Once the test had happened the United States and Japan pushed very strongly, along with South Korea, for a very strong presidential statement, which is something short of a resolution, but one that needed to be issued, that focused on sanctions and that clearly said that the missile test that was conducted in April was in violation of Resolution 1718, which is the United Nations Security Council resolution that was passed in the wake of the 2006 test. The presidential statement made in April by the Security Council was foundational in the sense that it created the case for collective sanctioning action should Pyongyang move to conduct a second nuclear test which it now has. So I expect that there will be fairly strong common ground to start the conversation this afternoon at the United Nations.

I see China was strongly condemnatory.

Absolutely. And here the pressure really is in many ways on China. China has been a key player in the Six-Party Talks of course. It has played a mediating role, or a hosting role, in the Six-Party process, but we tend often to underestimate the extent to which China has put its diplomatic cards on the table with North Korea. And as one of the key players in the Northeast Asian context, in the Six-Party context, China has been forced into a position by Pyongyang that will now make it very difficult for China not to impose sanctions.

The task is twofold for us who watch Beijing. It is not only China’s responsibility to regional stability which it claims a very strong interest in, of course, but it also claims a global commitment to nonproliferation. So the bar is high for China. The Obama administration feels quite confident that Beijing will stand up to that challenge. But China needs to act now quite forcefully.

What kinds of sanctions would you expect?

The language in UN Resolution 1718 has to do with the proliferation of nuclear materials, and that is a fairly broad category of weapons and materials production. There are also sanctions on any kind of financial instrument that may be attached to North Korea’s nuclear program, which generously interpreted could mean just about anything. The focal point will be the several billion dollars deposited by North Korea in Beijing. So I anticipate that will come out as a possible means to punish the North Koreans. But you’ll find that the financial side as much as the nuclear equipment and technology side will be highlighted at the United Nations Security Council.

Back after the first nuclear test the United States Treasury Department imposed sanctions on North Korea banks, as I recall, which seemed to cripple North Korean commerce, and crippled the ability of the elite to import things they wanted, and that’s what led to the breakthrough in the Six-Party Talks, it’s believed. But now it’s a different time. I assume those sanctions will go back on.

"Japan and South Korea will need a very clear and unambiguous statement that the United States remains committed to their defense and will keep them safe."

I’m assuming that’s one of the things the United States will be looking at. And you’ll find the discussion of last year revisited. The United States delisted North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. I believe that our policy debate will include a reconsideration of that decision. There will be an awful lot of attention paid again to the financial side of this. You’re right to point out the Macao-based bank where North Korean assets were frozen. There are other places today where North Korea holds financial assets--Beijing, Moscow--and this will definitely come under consideration in the diplomacy. Whether it will come out to the forefront I don’t know.

The other side we haven’t talked about is the fissile material. The Six-Party Talks in the end tried to get North Korea to declare its facilities and its plutonium stockpile, which was focused very firmly on Yongbyon and other facilities where plutonium might have been created and stored. There is also the highly enriched uranium project. There was a strong push at the end of the Bush administration to indicate that the United States wanted to know the specifics of that project and they also wanted to know better what [North] Korea had done with Syria in terms of a broader proliferation network. So there is a lot of information yet that goes beyond this specific nuclear test, a lot of information that the United States and other allies in the region will be looking to get from Pyongyang. I expect that will be part of the package that the five parties of the Six-Party Talks will be talking about as they try to talk about the diplomatic end game which we will need to come back to at a later date.

But there’s no indication that North Korea will go back to any table.

No, and I don’t think we should be thinking about going back to any table either. President Obama made a statement this afternoon and he very clearly pointed out where the United States will be heading.

A former State Department official told me he thought from conversations he’s had with North Korean officials that they wanted to be regarded as India--as possessing nuclear weapons but not ostracized.

The idea in Pyongyang is that its nuclear program will simply be accepted as a reality in the region. And the United States--because of its relationships in the region, but also because of this broader global nonproliferation objective--needs to make a very clear statement that it will not accept a nuclear North Korea. In other words the India model is not in the cards. [The Obama administration also has] got to be very attuned, which the president was this afternoon, to the perception of the publics of our allies in the Northeast Asia region, specifically South Korea and Japan. They will be watching the United States response very carefully. They depend, of course, on us for extended deterrence, for the nuclear umbrella that keeps them safe. Japan and South Korea will need a very clear and unambiguous statement that the United States remains committed to their defense and will keep them safe. And then there is the broader question of how we mobilize both allies and colleagues in Northeast Asia with the broader global nonproliferation initiative. That last diplomatic task will be large and it will involve more than today’s Security Council conversation. But this Security Council decision will have a fairly definitive impact on the credibility of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.