North Korea and the Bomb

North Korea has, apparently, tested a nuclear weapon:

SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea faced a barrage of global condemnation and calls for harsh sanctions Monday after it announced that it had set off an atomic weapon underground, a test that thrusts the secretive communist state into the elite club of nuclear-armed nations.The agreement came during a 15-minute conversation between the two leaders, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said.

The United States, Japan, China and Britain led a chorus of criticism and urged action by the United Nations Security Council in response to the reported test, which fell one day after the anniversary of reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s accession to power nine years ago.

South Korea’s spy chief said there were possible indications the North was moving to conduct more tests.

You can find good backgrounders on North Korea at and its nuclear weapons program at Nuclear Threat Initiative and Global Security. North Korea is believed to have between five and fifteen nuclear weapons in its possession. Now it has one fewer.

We’ve arrived at the present contretemps in which perhaps the world’s vilest regime has (at least some of) the world’s most powerful weapons as the culmination of a 60 year process that began with the creation of North Korea in 1948. Certainly George Bush deserves criticism for his failure to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program or to get much beyond harsh talk. So does every American president since Truman. While we’re assigning blame I’d say that the real blame belongs to the following countries in pretty much this order:

  • North Korea
  • China
  • South Korea
  • Japan

North Korea, obviously, has been horrible for sixty years and been adventurous, provocative, and seeking nuclear weapons for nearly the entire period. They’ve seized our ships on the high seas, imprisoned their crews, fired at our soldiers across the “De-Militarized Zone”, counterfeited our currency, and fired weapons in our general direction, threatening our allies. All of this has been labelled as “American provocation”. Since the 1950’s our actions in Korea have mostly been limited to harsh talk.

China is the patron, principle trading partner, and enabler of North Korea. Without China nearly everyone in North Korea will starve and they’ll be reduced to pulling their missiles around with ox-carts. A generation of Americans with dollar signs in their eyes have been unwilling to negotiate seriously with China about North Korea.

I’m not sure what China’s interest in North Korea is other than as a convenient stick to beat over our heads from time to time. China clearly doesn’t want the stream of North Korean refugees across its borders that would surely follow the collapse of civil order in North Korea. The Chinese ruling cadre is more than capable of dealing with that. So, what?

The cause of reunification has formed the base of more than one South Korean politician’s career. The idea that such a reunification could occur peacefully with the present North Korean regime or that the resultant country would resemble South Korea more than it does North Korea baffles me.

Japan, too, has been a major North Korean trading partner and, consequently, is an enabler of North Korea’s truculent behavior.

Any of the three countries above could deal with North Korea handily by themselves. Even the putatively disarmed Japan. But I’m sure they’re all willing to hold our coats so long as we’re willing to do the heavy lifting.

In my view the U. S. course of action at this point should be not much. We can’t force North Korea’s neighbors to behave responsibly if they’re not willing to do so. And certainly their interests in a peaceful Korean Peninsula are more urgent than ours.

We should wait a discrete interval and then quietly withdraw our troops. They no longer serve a function other than the same one a goat does in a tiger trap and IMO that’s no way to treat our own military.

The only real threat that North Korea presents to us is as a supplier of nuclear weapons technology to the rest of the world’s nogoodniks and, as long as their border with China is opened and we’re unwilling to negotiate seriously with China, there’s little we can do about that.

We should re-assert our policy of deterrence. The critical missing component of that is that we, the North Koreans, and the rest of the world must believe that we will respond overwhelmingly to attack by North Korea (or with weapons of North Korean supply or design). Convincing the American people of that would be a good start.

I wonder what the United Nations Security Council will be talking about today?


The first casualty of a nuclear North Korea seems to be the South Korean “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the north:

South Korean stocks plunged Monday following North Korea’s announcement of the test. The South Korean won also fell sharply. The benchmark Korea Composite Stock Price Index, or Kospi, fell as low as 1,303.62, or 3.6 percent.

Markets in South Korea, the world’s 10th largest economy, have long been considered vulnerable to potential geopolitical risks emanating from the North. The two countries, which fought the 1950-53 Korean War, are divided by the world’s most heavily armed border.


The South had planned to ship 4,000 tons of cement to the North on Tuesday as emergency relief following massive flooding there, but decided to delay it, Yonhap reported, quoting an unidentified Unification Ministry official.

That’s echoed in an interview with Korea analyst Aidan Foster-Carter:

Foster-Carter: It’s curtains for the ‘Sunshine Policy.’ The Roh Myu-hoon center-left government in South Korea, which has only got a year left to run anyway, is very, very weak. So, they’ve got nowhere else to go. I was just watching Roh Myu-hoon’s press conference and he didn’t look like a happy man at all.


President Bush has just made a very brief statement about North Korea’s nuclear test. Basically, he’s against it. I have no idea what “unacceptable” means.


Rick Moran reminds me of something I’d intended to mention in my original post:

The nuclear test by the North Koreans has been an embarrassment to China and has now caused the so-called “Six Party Talks” to collapse. This may have been part of Kim’s plan in conducting the test because the North Koreans have stressed repeatedly that they would prefer to deal with the United States directly in bi-lateral talks. The reasons are quite simple; they feel they can get more diplomatic goodies from the US in direct negotiations than they could in talks involving the South, Japan, Russian and China.

Don’t underestimate the significance of this: China’s is a “face” culture and this test constitutes a loss of face for China. Expect Chinese leaders to do something. I believe the ball is in their court.


Aside from a sideswipe at former President Clinton, I think Joe Katzman of Winds of Change is right on the money:

The truth is that North Korea is an irrelevant bit player in this whole drama. The real player here is China. They have helped North Korea at every step, and North Korea’s regime cannot survive at all without their ongoing food and fuel aid. Kim Jong-Il’s nuclear plans may be slightly inconvenient to the Chinese – just not not inconvenient enough to derail a strategy that still promises net plusses to those pursuing it within China’s dictatorship.


In other words, China won’t move unless its current strategy is seen to cost them, big-time.

The biggest cost, and the only one that will be real to them in any sense, is to have Kim Jong-Il’s nuclear detonation result in parallel nuclear proliferation among the nearby states China wishes to dominate/ bully. That would be a foreign policy disaster for the Chinese, and would cause the current architects of China’s North Korea policy to be buried along with their policy. Which, as we noted earlier, is the only kind of policy education that works in a system like theirs.

So… if this turns out to be a nuclear test, ignore North Korea. Sanctions et. al are a total waste of time. Target China indirectly, with consequences it can easily understand as horribly bad from their perspective but which appear to be perfectly reasonable responses to North Korea.

There are any number of ways in which the United States can play hardball with China. I have no confidence that we’ll be able to exploit any of them.


Arms Control Wonk looks at the seismographic readings, does the math, and decides that North Korea’s test (if any) was a dud.  His conclusion:

North Korean nuclear scientists are now officially the worst ever.

He also advises that we wait for the radionuclide data which should be available within the next 72 hours or so.  Update within an update:  SDB concurs.

6 comments… add one
  • It was “unacceptable” before the test, and now it’s “unacceptable” after the test. It means nothing, obviously. L’il Kim just took Mr. Bush’s “unacceptable” and rubbed his nose in it.

    I wouldn’t count on China to do much. China doesn’t want a collapsed NK. No doubt they’ll deliver a wrist slap, and the UN will no doubt impose irrelevant sanctions, but if we had few options yesterdaay we sure didn’t pick up any new ones today.

    Unacceptable? No. Accepted. That’s the bottom line.

  • China doesn’t want a collapsed NK.

    That’s essentially the point I’ve been making for quite some time with respect to China’s North Korea policy, MT. Is a North Korea that’s doing less trade than what they’ve been doing with South Korea and Japan more or less likely to collapse? More, I’d say, and, consequently, China needs to take more strenuous action than they have to date if they’re to achieve that objective.

  • George Link

    I’d really like to see an analysis from some competent source (not the MSM) on what the NoKo test actually produced.

  • Dave:

    Yesterday we were sitting at the table with a NK that could have been bluffing. We called. They weren’t bluffing. The Chinese almost certainly knew Kim had the cards in his hand. So the Chinese have done the math on this and concluded that they can live with a nuclear NK.

    China can avoid a collapsed NK by vetoing or undercutting any effective sanctions. And the more Kim is squeezed the more he can look elsewhere for sources of income. You know, like a middle eastern nation swimming in oil money, for example.

    China’s not going to lower the hammer on NK, and we can’t make them without paying a far higher price than we’d like. So we’re going to accept a nuclear NK, and we’re going to pay the extortion in hopes we can keep NK nukes off the market.

  • Somehow it seems to me that if the test was a dud, which doesn’t surprise me in the least, it changes the whole dynamic. NK is still something of a threat, but nowhere near on the same level.

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