Nuclear little brother: North Korea's next test

About the author
Peter Hayes is professor of international relations at Nautilus at RMIT and directs the Nautilus Institute in San Francisco.

North Korea is heading rapidly for a nuclear test. The government of "dear leader" Kim Jong Il is undeterred by the condemnation it received after it fired a salvo of seven short, intermediate and long-range missiles on 5 July 2006. What is prompting the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK's) missile-test strategy vis-à-vis its adversaries (the United States and Japan), neighbours (South Korea and Russia) and erstwhile partners (China), and what governs their reaction to the Pyongyang regime's latest spectacle?

China shifted its stance from backing North Korea against United States and Japanese pressure aimed at toppling the regime to supporting a United Nations Security Council Resolution on 15 July that condemned the DPRK's missile tests outright, and proscribed UN member-states from trading technology – any technology – that might be used for missile tests or its declared and alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Kim Jong il and Democratic Republic of North Korea military

The resolution's advantage for this unholy alliance of three disparate forces – United States neo-conservatives led by the US's ambassador at the United Nations, John Bolton, resurgent Japanese hardliners, and the Chinese – was twofold: it avoided a veto, yet headed off a potentially stronger Security Council resolution that would have authorised Chapter 7 sanctions (including the use of military force to implement the resolution).

The Chinese are well aware that condemning North Korea at the UN Security Council is the same as declaring that they no longer back Kim Jong Il, the supreme leader of North Korea in whom all power is vested and personified.

The slender legal basis for the UN Security Council resolution was that the North Koreans did not issue notices to airmen and mariners to avoid the launch and splashdown areas affected by the missiles. In practice, this affected areas of the Russian coast in the Sea of Japan where the shorter range missiles hit the water, reportedly outside the designated danger-zones.

The long-range missile – launched on the night of 5 July to coincide with the US shuttle launch on 4 July (US time) – blew up shortly after lift-off. A similar rocket fired on 31 August 1998 failed after passing over Japan, and objects from it fell into the primary air-traffic route between east Asia and north America, leading both the International Council on Civil Aviation and the International Maritime Organisation to take up the matter with Pyongyang.

Peter Hayes is professor of international relations at Nautilus at RMIT, Melbourne, and directs the Nautilus Institute in San Francisco

This article is based on a report – "Embrace Tiger, Retreat to Mountain, Test Nuke" – published on 21 July 2006 by the Nautilus Institute

The path to, and from, negotiation

The 1998 missile launch was aimed largely at reinforcing the domestic legitimacy of Kim Jong Il, who was then still in the process of establishing his legitimacy after inheriting the reigns from his father, "great leader" Kim Il Sung, who died suddenly in 1994. It was also intended to poke Japan in the eye and thereby get American attention back on North Korean concerns. In this regard, it succeeded. By October 2000, US secretary of state Madeleine Albright was in Pyongyang; and American diplomats were meeting North Korean counterparts in Kuala Lumpur to try to negotiate a missile shutdown in North Korea in return for US delivery of DPRK satellites into space (likely on Chinese or Russian rockets) and a host of other reciprocal benefits, the most important of which was the declared end of hostile relations between the United States and the DPRK.

Until the chads of Florida intervened, ensuring the arrival of George W Bush in the White House in January 2001, the negotiations looked like they might bring about the unimaginable – the termination of North Korea's missile production and export programme. With Bill Clinton out of power and the transition to Bush underway, the diplomats simply ran out of time. The Bush administration inaugurated its ABC ("anything but Clinton") policy toward North Korea. Two years of malign neglect ensued until December 2002, when the United States accused the north of ramping up its enriched-uranium programme to an industrial scale technology acquisition effort.

Affronted, the DPRK tried to play a tit-for-tat game, but by the end of 2002, almost all the cooperative measures developed over a decade of surly interaction were terminated. The United States had pulled the plug on its delivery of heavy fuel oil, the North Koreans unfroze the reactor and reprocessing facilities and began to madly extract plutonium from spent fuel, and it was clear that the giant light-water reactor construction project in North Korea would be put on ice and eventually terminated (the final axe fell in 2006).

The United States set in motion an alternative multilateral strategy – the "six-party talks" – whereby the United States, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and China (the host) would negotiate a peaceful resolution of the DPRK nuclear challenge. Over three protracted sessions, the talks went nowhere with the United States refusing to deal bilaterally with the DPRK on the critical issues. It was evident to all, especially to China, that this was faux diplomacy with a vengeance, and was simply a way of passing the American buck to China when (as the DPRK insisted) the issues that needed to be negotiated were between Pyongyang and Washington.

Faced with the collapse of these talks in September 2005, the United States agreed to a Chinese-drafted set of principles for further negotiations. However, the United States and the DPRK immediately restated irreconcilable positions within a day of signing the principles. A long period of strategic drift ensued with the United States preoccupied with events in Iraq and the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Also in openDemocracy about North Korea's politics:

Kim Kook-Shin, "Don't let a cloud stop the sunshine" (27 December 2002)

Jasper Becker, "A gulag with nukes: inside North Korea" (19 July 2005)

Hwang Sok-yong, "The ghosts of North and South Korea" (16 December 2005)

David Wall, "North Korea and the 'six-party talks': a road to nowhere" (12 April 2006)

Jane Porter, "Art under control in North Korea" (28 June 2006)

China's sideways shift

Fast forward to May 2006. By now, the DPRK perceived itself to have been stiffed by China which had proven unable to deliver a United States in a serious negotiation. The DPRK had already declared itself to be a nuclear power and had even invited Sig Hecker, the retired head of a US nuclear-weapons design laboratory, to visit and hold a chunk of plutonium. After the September principles, the United States slapped financial and shipping sanctions on the DPRK, and seemed ready to simply squeeze what American policymakers began to call the "Sopranos state" by chasing various DPRK narco-criminal ventures such as counterfeiting and drug smuggling.

It seems that the DPRK leadership (personified by Kim Jong Il), faced with this campaign of unrelenting hostility from Washington, decided in May or June 2006 that it would go it alone and – with or without Chinese backing – test not only a missile, but a nuclear weapon. The long-range missile test infuriated the Chinese, who had publicly advised the DPRK not to fire even one missile, let alone a salvo. Beijing combined this stance with a calm posture at the UN Security Council, where it stated outright that it would veto a resolution seeking Chapter 7 authorisation for sanctions and even military action against the DPRK missile programme.

Suddenly, however, the Chinese shifted position, and brought Russia along with them. They did get the harshest provisions removed from the 15 July resolution, but they also aligned themselves with the United States and Japan against the DPRK by condemning the tests themselves, supporting the sanctions on technology transfer, and placing sole responsibility for the continuation of the six-party talks on the DPRK.

At some point between late May and early July, therefore, Kim Jong Il had come to an irrevocable conclusion that the DPRK had been stiffed by China and therefore had to act unilaterally at any price. A comment by vice-minister Kim Gae Gwan on 6 July is revealing here: asked by visiting American Bob Scalapino whether China would be upset about the missile tests, he said: "What I hear is Big Brothers saying to Little Brother 'don't do that'; but we are not a little boy, we have nuclear weapons."

China would have condemned North Korea's missile test only if it was directly informed by the DPRK in advance or if it possessed independent intelligence that a nuclear test was planned. In any case, whether the Chinese were trying to prevent a test at the last moment or simply making the best of a bad situation, the odds are better than 50:50 that the north will test a nuclear device before the end of 2006 – that is, after it collects another round of food aid from South Korea, and from China, before winter sets in.

Also in openDemocracy on nuclear weapons and global politics:

Achilles Skordas, "A right to use nuclear weapons?"
(February 2003)

Patricia Lewis, "The NPT review conference" (June 2005)

Paul Rogers, "By any means necessary: the United States and Japan" (August 2005)

Brian Cathcart, "Britain and the atomic bomb" (August 2005)

Brian Cathcart, "Joseph Rotblat's humanity" (September 2005)

Paul Rogers, "The United States, nuclear weapons, and Iran"
(January 2006)

Lisa Lynch, "The United States's nuclear fix" (January 2006)

Richard Falk & David Krieger, "After the nuclear non-proliferation treaty" (April 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Britain's nuclear-weapons fix" (June 2006)

Pyongyang's poker game

What are the indicators that the north will now test? The furious rejection of the UN Security Council resolution from the DPRK foreign-affairs ministry is one: "Neither the United Nations, nor anyone else, can protect us" – a statement that effectively denigrates its putative security ally, China. Moreover, and most ominously, the statement hinted that the DPRK would demonstrate its deterrent capacity (aka nuclear weapons) and now had "no option" but to take "stronger physical (mullijo'k) actions." Some observers have noted that this phrase may denote actions that are simply physical, or refer to an activity that relies on physics – possibly a nuclear test.

Having been disrespected, the only way for Kim Jong Il to recover face is to escalate; and the only way to escalate is to test his country's declared nuclear weaponry. In short, he needs to add the Bomb to the list of achievements in the paean to his military leadership published in Rodong Sinmun newspaper on 18 May 2006 (see below).

When the north tests, China will pay the price for having played a faux-diplomacy game, one set in motion by the Bushites three years ago. The reality of a nuclear-armed small brother on its northeastern flank will leave Beijing with few options. It can hardly pull the plug on the north, thereby causing a nuclear-weapons state to collapse on its doorstep, with all the attendant risks – civil war, loss of control of fissile material, and rogue warheads amidst chaos. Moreover, to do so would be to force South Korea to switch its economic focus from trade, investment, and financing in China; this would in turn have huge implications for Chinese Community Party rule and for political stability in China, as it would force China to focus on the reconstruction of the former DPRK.

A North Korean nuclear test would also split the right in South Korea, and make it harder for the United States to recover its fragile alliance with the south. Japan is sure to overreact to a nuclear test in a way that takes the wind out of Chinese and South Korean sails in dealing with a nuclear DPRK. The Chinese know that the United States will control whatever nuclear force Japan adopts to match a DPRK test, but an equally grave concern for Beijing will be that Taiwan might choose to follow the DPRK model in terms of accelerated deployment of tactical missile defence capabilities on its strategic nuclear forces.

Meanwhile, an interesting trend to monitor will be whether a nuclear-armed North Korea that has put both hands on the poker table by testing will begin to extend deterrence and seek nuclear allies of its own.




Poem to the National Defence Commission (NDC) chairman, Kim Jong Il, published in Pyongyang's Rodong Sinmun (formerly transliterated as Nodong Sinmun), daily newspaper of the central committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, on 18 May 2006

"It is none other than the National Defence Commission chairman,
General Kim Jomg Il, the unrivalled heaven-sent General of Mount Paektu, who
Learned how to govern the world
From a table placed in the Supreme Command for mapping out a plan of operations during the war days,
While hearing the sound of guns coming from a battlefield on Mount Paektu during the anti-Japanese (struggle) days,
With steely will and gun barrel,
Standing tall at the head of the juche armed forces,
Assuming responsibility for the destiny of the fatherland and the nation,
And led the revolution as a whole,
Along the single-track road from century to century.

It is none other than our NDC chairman,
The powerful and fearless General Kim Jong Il, who,
Since no political formula of conventional framework
Or ultramodern scientific and technological means
Could calm the fiery wind of threats and natural disasters,
And the mountains of the most arduous trials,
And because only with the invincible gun-barrel could they be broken through,
Lifted up the almighty military-first banner,
Turning the treacherous road of "arduous march"
Into a march toward a paradise, a broad level way out.

A brilliant, invincible military-first command,
A big heart to the tens of millions of soldiers and people when they are united,
A supreme commander well acquainted with the military affairs,
And an invincible NDC chairman to the country.
As no one can casually associate with him
And as he is held at the very top of our Republic,
The mad wind of imperialism stopped struggling and keeps its head down
And my fatherland displays fireworks to celebrate successive triumphs.

It is none other than the NDC chairman,
Our peerlessly superb General Kim Jong Il, who,
Oh, with do-or-die resolve when fighting is inevitable,
With the pluck that he would win victory in all fights without fail,
Standing firmly on a hard bulwark in the anti-US showdown,
With lightning and thunder reverberating throughout the skies,
Overwhelmed the dissonance from the bastards' heated anti-Republic commotion,
With the scream of those being destroyed.

Sacred it is.
My country's sky is blue over the gun-barrel
And stacks of all kinds of grain stalks harvested in a bumper crop grow high.
It is none other than our NDC chairman,
The military-first veteran of all battles General Kim Jong Il, who,
Giving priority to the gun-barrel and national defence,
Hardened the defence position of the fatherland into a fortress
And pushed towers of great construction up through the sky,
Beating the drum for advance with the sound of national defence hammer,
Raising the height of the fatherland with the launching pad of an artificial earth satellite,
Demonstrating the lofty dignity of the nation of the sun and
The majestic appearance of the powerful state of juche (chuch'e) to the whole world.

O, the peerless general who is the general of all generals,
The matchlessly great man who is the greatest of all great men.
It is none other than our NDC chairman, the greatest man in the world,
The brilliant, ever-victorious commander General Kim Jong Il,
The military-first sun admired by the whole world,
The person whom we will forever uphold at the very top of the Republic
And for whom tens of millions of soldiers and people will become guns and bombs to defend him at the risk of their lives, who,
With his hand,
Has achieved immortal accomplishments
That cannot be built even in a long historical period, even in hundreds of years
On the rock-firm foundation laid for a powerful state of juch'e."