By testing a nuclear weapon, the Democratic Republic of Korea (the DPRK or North Korea) has created what is undoubtedly the most dangerous international situation since the Cuban Missile Crisis more than 40 years ago. Notwithstanding the obvious dangers in the Middle East, including Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, the new situation on the Korean peninsula has the potential to escalate very quickly in unpredictable directions.
We need to understand what this test does, and does not, imply, what it suggests and what it proves.
First, it proves that the DPRK can build a fission bomb and detonate it. It does not prove that more devices can be quickly constructed or already exist; and it certainly does not demonstrate that the design used for this test is suitable for military use: i.e., deliverable by at least one of aircraft, missile, warship or artillery piece.
The recent DPRK long-range new Taepo Dong missile test was an abject failure, so until such time as the design is successfully produced and verified by testing, Pyongyang cannot threaten targets at intercontinental range even when its bomb design is refined to support weaponisation as a missile warhead.
Second, it shows that the DPRK is a true loose cannon. In the DPRK’s situation only a regime of almost unbelievable irresponsibility would detonate a nuclear weapon. While it is true that the Korean policy of the George W. Bush administration has been typically confrontational and ham-fisted, nothing Washington has done justifies the DPRK’s most recent action.
Indirectly, though, Washington bears some of the responsibility. Consider the contrast between the Korean situation late in the Clinton era with that we now face: a successful North-South summit was held in June 2000; Pyongyang had implemented (and observed, till very recently) a moratorium on long-range missile tests; also in 2000, a senior DPRK official visited Washington and, incredibly, the US Secretary of State went to Pyongyang. There was even talk of a possible Presidential visit to the DPRK capital. All this was immediately shut down after Bush won the disputed 2000 elections. To this extent, running a confrontational policy against the DPRK has driven its erratic and far-from-rational government into its nuclear corner.
I have serious forebodings about how this crisis might develop. I believed the US when it warned a few days before the test that North Korea could choose between its nuclear weapons program and “having a future”.
The danger is that the DPRK program, having successfully produced at least a device that explodes, will move as fast as possible to the production of deliverable weapons. The US will rightly calculate that if the DPRK is to be attacked, it must be soon, before Pyongyang produces weaponised missile-deliverable nuclear devices. Once the DPRK has these, it will be unassailable because it can immediately (with shorter-range missiles) threaten large Japanese population concentrations, thereby deterring attack. So, if there is to be an attack, it must be staged before this can happen.
The North Korean problem is more dangerous than that of Iran because, as I have argued before, Iran’s rulers have widespread popular support across the political spectrum for their nuclear program; one can make a rational case for Iran’s attitude (this does not mean that the case is necessarily correct); Iran, unlike the DPRK, is not an isolated failing state likely to make irrational decisions as to the deployment and use of nukes; and, finally, Iran is still a long way from either a bomb or a long-range delivery system.
So-called international relations “realists” base all their calculations on a key assumption - that the participants in a crisis will act rationally: i.e., in their own best interests. Yet history shows that certain extreme regime types do not always satisfy this assumption - they act irrationally, and against their own interests, for ideological or even emotional reasons. Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II is one example; another is the self-destructive crippling of the Cambodian economy by the genocidal ideologues of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, who thereby made themselves so weak they could not resist Vietnamese invasion.
The DPRK is likewise such a regime. In framing a response to its foolish decision to test a bomb, world leaders need to be aware of the irrationality which dominates in Pyongyang. A rationally-conceived sanctions program, for instance, might bring a normal regime to its senses but is unlikely to make much impression on the DPRK.
Because the US will recognise - as discussed above - that it cannot allow the DPRK to weaponise and develop delivery systems for its new bomb, there is likely to be strong pressure in Washington to appeal yet again to Bush’s “pre-emption” doctrine. The fact that the DPRK cannot be relied on to act rationally will add weight to the arguments of those who say that further negotiation is pointless; that there is a narrow window of opportunity before Pyongyang can deploy enough weapons to make itself unassailable and that, therefore, the US and its allies should strike down the DPRK regime before the window closes.
This crisis is deadly dangerous. Its further development is unpredictable, but I hold grave fears for the future in North Asia.