Isolating North Korea will not help curb its nuclear ambitions

The most recent North Korean nuclear test is the most dangerous of the three to date. How the international community responds, in both word and deed, will say much about the world we live in. And whether the Chinese like it or not, how they respond will speak volumes about what kind of role China will play in global governance.

While details are not yet fully known, the test suggests substantial progress on the part of North Korea’s scientists in increasing the yield of their weaponry. The October 2006 test suggested the possibility of a faulty design, while there were questions about whether the 2009 effort was even nuclear in nature.

But North Korea’s test this month was by all measures the real thing. Moreover, though it is hard to evaluate North Korean bluster on these occasions, there appears to be reason to be concerned that North Korean scientists have also made progress in miniaturizing their design, a step needed to mount a nuclear device on a missile.

Most worrisome of all, we cannot rule out that North Korea may have succeeded in enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels. We have scant information about this, beyond some limited information about international acquisitions and some detection of traces of highly enriched uranium (HEU) on materials brought out of North Korea. If North Korea is using HEU in its bomb design, we have little knowledge about where it comes from and how much of it they have, or could have in the future.

There are some who would urge that we all remain calm (good advice in most circumstances) and somehow take comfort in the fact that North Korea still faces many serious technical hurdles before it can successfully add nuclear weapons to its considerable conventional arsenal. After all, it took the United States 12 years to mount a weapon on a missile.

But all indications are that the North Koreans have accelerated their testing schedule and have made nuclear weapons a top priority. North Korean propaganda is not always a reliable indicator, but the recent upswing in attacks on the U.S., including a bizarre video to the tune of “We are the World” should not be completely laughed off. Gone are the hopes that the boy-dictator Kim Jong Un and his regents are more interested in economic development than they are in following the Kim dynasty’s traditional military-first policies.

North Korea’s latest nuclear test is thus a test in many senses of the word. For starters, it tests whether the 43-year-old Non-Proliferation Treaty is still viable. After all, the NPT’s objective is to “prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.” Some might say that just two new wannabes, North Korea and Iran, is not so bad. But when it comes to nuclear weapons, even one is more than enough.

The latest detonation also tests whether the world can make addressing North Korea’s dangerous aspirations a priority by uniting around a common policy that is more than rhetorical in its condemnation. One thing we know about the North Koreans is that, unless they can use such rhetoric in their own propaganda (they got far more traction out of former U.S. President George W. Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” remark than he ever did), they simply don’t care what is said about them.

Similarly, threatening North Korea with isolation, the hardy perennial of diplomatic pressuring, does not work, because isolation is exactly what the North Koreans want. What the international community needs to do is to come together on a program of action aimed at producing a result.

Economic sanctions alone are dubious against the world’s most sanctioned country. And threatening more sanctions in the future raises the question of why those sanctions have not already been imposed.

In recent days, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has done well to encourage countries big and small to speak out. Clearly, no single country can solve this problem. But encouraging countries to make statements and adhere to the sanctions regime will not get us to the goal that we need to achieve.

Every country needs to feel the threat from North Korea, and thus to feel the need to participate in addressing it, regardless of their relationships with or attitudes about the U.S. Enmity toward the U.S. should not translate into forbearance toward North Korea.

There are also those – a dwindling minority, fortunately – who continue to suggest that more needs to be done on the negotiating track. In fact, that track should remain open, but no one should be under the illusion that negotiations are somehow the missing piece of the puzzle. North Korea looked at every offer on the table during the six-party talks that began in 2003 – a peace treaty, economic and energy assistance, and membership in a regional association – and walked away.

Similarly, bilateral requests that North Korea had made for years, such as repeal of its designation by the U.S. as an enemy in the context of the “Trading with the Enemy Act,” once delivered, were dismissed as unimportant. Such offers remain on the table, gathering dust, but it has been entirely North Korea’s decision not to pursue them.

Finally, the real test here may be not so much what the world will do, but rather what China, North Korea’s sole remaining ally, will do. No one expects China to resolve this problem by itself. But the world is watching China and its incoming leadership for clues about what kind of member of the international community China really aspires to be.

Christopher R. Hill, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 26, 2013, on page 7.




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