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North Korea’s Move Tests International Will on Nuclear Issues

May 25, 2009 at 6:05 PM EDT
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Following North Korea's announcement that it has detonated a nuclear device underground, analysts examine how the regime's move has tested international will to confront nuclear proliferation.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on the response to the North Korean tests, we go to Douglas Paal, who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations. He’s now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

And Joel Wit was a career State Department official dealing with Northeast Asia and arms control. He’s now a visiting fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

And, Joel Wit, given the admittedly paltry evidence that’s coming out — I mean, not a lot to go on — but what does this latest test tell you about the state of the North Korean program?

JOEL WIT, Johns Hopkins University: Well, I think the important point here is, as everyone knows, it’s the second test, but it’s the first successful test. Everyone had doubts about whether the first test worked or not. This is the first successful test.

And so what that means is, first of all, people are now starting to understand that North Korea may have a workable nuclear device. And secondly, even more important, North Korea’s probably trying to perfect their design so they can put these warheads on top of missiles.

RAY SUAREZ: From two different sources comes word that the increase in seismic activity as a result of the explosion was roughly half a point on the Richter Scale. And I guess if you don’t know much about the Richter Scale, it doesn’t sound like a lot, but is it a much more powerful explosion?

JOEL WIT: Well, it’s definitely a lot more powerful than the first one, which only amounted to a few kilotons of explosive power. This one, as the Russians said, is 10 to 20 kilotons, which was much larger.

But that’s important. But the important thing here is that this test seems to have been successful. And that has broader ramifications for countries in the region, for the United States, and for the international nonproliferation regime.

Reaction to Obama's words

Douglas Paal
Carnegie Endowment
North Korea is very isolated, but there's still things which it has available to it, like financial services access abroad, the ability to market its arms abroad, the ability to trade with other parties abroad.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Douglas Paal, very quickly President Obama called for the world to stand up to North Korea over this program. What does that mean in this case?

DOUGLAS PAAL, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Well, what he's hoping for is that, in the United States -- excuse me, United Nations Security Council, he'll be able to get unanimous five-power agreement to increase and tighten sanctions on North Korea. The Chinese have been reluctant...

RAY SUAREZ: But isn't North Korea pretty isolated already?

DOUGLAS PAAL: North Korea is very isolated, but there's still things which it has available to it, like financial services access abroad, the ability to market its arms abroad, the ability to trade with other parties abroad.

China has been reluctant to impose the sanctions that have already been in place on North Korea, such as on luxury goods imported to North Korea. And a big part of this game is to get China to step up to its commitments and to increase those commitments to isolate North Korea.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you heard China's newscaster there condemning on behalf of the government the North Korean test. Is China in motion on where it stands on North Korea?

DOUGLAS PAAL: It's got to do something after this test. They did -- after the first test in 2006, they, for the first time, agreed with a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned that test and set in motion the sanctions regime.

China then waffled on -- it's caught between its desire to see North Korea preserved as a source of stability on its border and a desire to prevent North Korea from destabilizing Northeast Asia with its military programs. And it hasn't been able to decide which one to go with as a state outcome up to now. This may help push them toward more forceful action against North Korea.

Leverage over North Korea

Joel Wit
Johns Hopkins University
The North Koreans are not ready to come back to the table, because they have business they need to take care of. And the business is, they are developing a small nuclear deterrent.

RAY SUAREZ: Joel Wit, do you think the world community has very much leverage left over North Korea?

JOEL WIT: I'm very skeptical. If you're putting together a policy for dealing with North Korea, of course it's necessary to take these kinds of steps to put pressure on them.

On the other hand, it's not going to be sufficient to have any effect whatsoever. We need a combination of steps at the United Nations, bilateral sanctions against North Korea, but we also need to get back to the negotiating table and talk to North Korea and probe for possible ways that we can get ourselves out of this mess.

RAY SUAREZ: Of what use is heading back to the negotiation table? A United States representative just in the past few weeks made new overtures to Korea to reopen, and today they test the underground bomb and shoot surface-to-air missiles over the Pacific Ocean.

JOEL WIT: Well, you're absolutely right. The North Koreans are not ready to come back to the table, because they have business they need to take care of. And the business is, they are developing a small nuclear deterrent.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, hopefully, as pressure mounts from the international community, North Korea might take a tactical step to relieve the pressure and come back to the negotiating table. But then we need to figure out what our approach will be when that happens in order to try to push this towards a peaceful resolution.

Value of negotiations

Douglas Paal
Carnegie Endowment
We rushed back to the table after the test in 2006 and kind of undercut our whole position. And if we rush back at this point, we're rewarding this fit of bad behavior.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it worthwhile to head back to the table?

DOUGLAS PAAL: Not soon. We rushed back to the table after the test in 2006 and kind of undercut our whole position. And if we rush back at this point, we're rewarding this fit of bad behavior.

It's not just a nuclear test. They've declared all of their agreements with South Korea and with the outside world void since the 1990s. They have ended the six-party talks, as far as they're concerned. They've left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

They've done everything they can to send a signal they don't want to come back to the bargaining table. Maybe that's in the long term supposed to give them leverage. But in the short term, it doesn't give us any point of departure for a conversation.

RAY SUAREZ: But you heard Joel Wit describe a North Korea that sounds like it's on the verge of becoming a modest nuclear power, an established nuclear power. Is there any way for the rest of the world to stop that?

DOUGLAS PAAL: It's going to be hard to stop it. I think you have to deal with it. And there are two ways of dealing with it.

One is to recognize that North Korea is not an industrial power. It cannot build hundreds of these bombs and missiles and threaten global Armageddon.

However, it is a real threat to South Korea and Japan. And we need to make sure we're doing what we can, as we normally do, to bolster Tokyo and Seoul's sense of confidence that American extended deterrence is credible and covers their security needs. We may have to do other things -- consultations, transfers of certain defensive systems -- in order to give them a higher sense of self-confidence.

Opening lines of dialogue

Joel Wit
Johns Hopkins University
The North Korea of today is very different from the North Korea at the end of the Clinton administration. At that time, North Korea was seriously interested in becoming a partner of the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Through a lot of the '90s and the early part of this decade, North Korea was angling for a one-on-one meeting with the United States. And the United States tried, when possible, to defer to the six-power talks.

What about giving them what they're looking for in this instance? Do you think there's any advantage to be gained in United States' officials having a bilateral relationship on this issue with North Korea?

JOEL WIT: Well, first of all, for a long time, we did have bilateral meetings. And then, when the Bush administration came in, we shifted to multilateral meetings. So bilateral meetings can have an important effect, but I don't want to sound naive here.

The North Korea of today is very different from the North Korea at the end of the Clinton administration. At that time, North Korea was seriously interested in becoming a partner of the United States. It's hard for most people to understand, but that was the case.

Today, North Korea is not interested in that anymore, and that makes it sound even harder to deal with them. And it will be. But we have no alternative, because if we sit back and let them stew in their juices, six months from now, the situation is going to be a lot worse than it is today. And we're going to be wondering, you know, where is this going to end?

RAY SUAREZ: Doug Paal, do you agree with that?

DOUGLAS PAAL: I agree with a lot of it. I think that letting them stew in their juices for a while is a necessary component of any strategy. There's also the component which Joel hasn't mentioned, which is, will something happen inside the regime?

We don't know what really motivates this regime to do what it's doing right now. We do know it's coincident with the health crisis of the leader and an attempt to create a successor in a 24-year-old son.

We have to see whether this is all an internal story that has external ramifications that we don't like or it's something that has a direct foreign application.

RAY SUAREZ: Douglas Paal, Joel Wit, good to talk to you both. Thank you.

DOUGLAS PAAL: You're welcome.