North Korea’s nuclear test last week indicates that the regime's race to acquire long-range nuclear missiles may have entered its final stretch. If this is the case, then those countries that have been fighting, in vain, to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions might soon find themselves with only one possible secret weapon of their own: China.
The test itself was no surprise: North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, has made no secret of his resolve to follow in the footsteps of his late father, Kim Jong-il, who oversaw the detonation of two plutonium devices in 2006 and 2009, respectively.
But the language used by the official news agency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea raised worries early on. When announcing the February 12 test, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) trumpeted the underground detonation of a “miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously.” The country’s nuclear deterrence has now become “diversified,” the agency boasted on the day of the test.
If, in the Aesopian language of the country’s propagandists, “diversification” means detonating a highly enriched uranium (HEU) device instead of a plutonium bomb, then the international community should be worried for two reasons.
First, an HEU bomb would expand North Korea's options for weapons-grade materials, which have been limited to plutonium from a now-defunct reactor. Since the facility’s shuttering in 2007, stockpiles of the precious fissile material are believed to have dwindled.
Second, it is easier to conceal highly enriched uranium than plutonium. This means that North Korea may find it is less difficult to export nuclear weapons technology to foreign buyers. Indeed, not so long ago Pyongyang almost succeeded in equipping Syria with a plutonium nuclear reactor and got paid for it.
KCNA’s claim of a “miniaturized” device, if true, is equally unsettling. A successful test of a device small enough to fit on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) would mean that North Korea has overcome a major obstacle in its quest for a “proper” nuclear deterrent. According to nuclear experts’ latest assessments, while North Korea still cannot deploy a warhead on an ICBM, it is capable of mounting one on shorter-range missiles.
Yes, Pyongyang still needs to transform its Unha-3 rocket (successfully launched in December) into a full-fledged ICBM and test it. That means North Korean designers need to develop the actual warhead and a reentry vehicle to carry it, among other things. But these problems are not insurmountable for a country that has already mastered the technology to build nuclear bombs and long-range missiles.
Acknowledging North Korea’s progress in these fields, some American experts suggest that the United States and its allies should shift their focus from attempts to prevent the development of nuclear weapons and ICBMs to preparations for shooting down those missiles.
However, it is still possible to secure North Korea’s consent to the long-term, verifiable suspension of its nuclear missile program peacefully through a combination of carrots and sticks.
Of course, this time it would take much more than the supplies of fuel oil and light water reactors that North Korea demanded in exchange for agreeing to suspend its plutonium reprocessing and rocket programs in 1994.
Similarly, economic sanctions of the kind that the UN Security Council slapped on the country after the 2006 and 2009 tests will not work. If anything, these sanctions demonstrated that the regime is ready to starve its citizens if that is what it takes to continue their onward march toward nuclear weapons.
Freezing officials’ assets and denying them visas will also have little impact on North Korea’s leaders, as isolation from the outside world is a pillar of their regime.
That said, it is, of course, absolutely necessary to strengthen measures that would minimize North Korea's ability to both import dual-use technologies and export its nuclear know-how with impunity. The international community should also exert maximum effort to dismantle the money-laundering schemes that the regime relies upon to mitigate the impact of sanctions.
As for carrots, the participants in the six-party talks should try to address the goals that North Korea wants to achieve through developing nuclear weapons. The country’s leaders may be cruel despots, but they are not suicidal maniacs. They view nuclear warheads not as useable weapons, but as an instrument to achieve other goals – such as binding security guarantees for the regime from the United States, recognition as an equal player by the great powers, and assistance from the international community not only in subsistence, but also development.
At the same time, given North Korea’s history of reneging on agreements, no combination of sticks and carrots can work unless it is relentlessly advanced by a united front of regional and world powers. Of these – China is the most important. If there is a single country than has the leverage to convince the Hermit Kingdom to suspend its nuclear ambitions, it is the Middle Kingdom.
China is North Korea’s prime source of aid and investment. It accounts for more 70 percent of North Korea’s trade, according to Pyongyang’s own statistics service. China supplies some 90 percent of the energy and almost 50 percent of the food that North Koreans consume. In short, if there is a silver bullet that can put North Korea's nuclear missile program into a verifiable sleep, it lies somewhere in the pipelines and storehouses of China.
So far, Beijing's half-hearted efforts to convince Pyongyang to stop its nuclear missile program have mostly boiled down to condemning tests and supporting the occasional UN resolution. But, perhaps, the nuclear fireworks across the border on the Lunar New Year could prompt China’s new leadership to adjust its policy – which has essentially hinged on the idea that the emergence of a unified Korea allied with the United States is not in China's interests. But a nuclear-armed neighbor is also hardly in China’s best interests, especially if that neighbor faces a continuous risk of implosion. Besides, a nuclear-armed North Korea could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region, which would both undermine regional stability and devalue China’s own nuclear arsenal.
A display of leadership in resolving the dispute over the North Korean nuclear program would significantly increase China's political weight in the eyes of the international community. Failure to do so, or a continuation of Beijing's current policy, would raise doubts over whether China, which is set to outstrip the United States economically in the coming few decades, really can act like a responsible world leader.
Simon Saradzhyan is a researcher at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center. His research interests include international security, arms control,
counter-terrorism as well as political affairs in post-Soviet states and their relations with major outside powers. Prior to joining the Belfer Center in 2008 Saradzhyan had worked as deputy editor of the Moscow Times and a consultant for the United Nations and World Bank. Saradzhyan holds a graduate degree from the Harvard University.
The views expressed in this column are the author’s alone.