AFTER FOUR YEARS of bluster and buildup, North Korea has finally reached the nuclear finish line. On Tuesday, it announced its intention to step across. At every point along the way, Pyongyang has telegraphed its intentions, first announcing that it would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and reprocess plutonium, then declaring that it already possessed a “deterrent force” and now, for the first time, proclaiming that it will conduct a weapons test. In this way, Pyongyang has probed the resolve of those seeking to stop it, extorting economic rewards for simply showing up at the negotiating table while at the same time forcing the world to adjust to the idea that it either already is, or soon will be, a member of the nuclear club.
In keeping with past practice, the North will probably not test right away, preferring instead to see what new concessions it can extract. Unless it encounters a tougher and more unified response than it has to date, however, Pyongyang will probably follow through eventually on its latest threat. On the nuclear issue, at least, Kim Jong Il has proved to be a man of his word.
What would be the effect of a successful North Korean nuclear test? The answer could turn out to be worse than many observers now seem to imagine.
For Kim, a nuclear blast would be a personal triumph, the crowning glory of a 20-year nuclear research program carried out under his direction that puts him at last on an equal footing with his father and sainted predecessor and promises to secure the Kim dynasty for decades to come. Success will boost the “Dear Leader’s” already ample confidence in his own strategic genius, while putting him in a better position to deter external threats and to command the continued loyalty of his subordinates in the military and the security services. It may also convince him that he is freer to indulge his propensity for taking risks and his habit of extorting food, fuel and cash from his neighbors.
Instead of making Kim secure, and hence easier to deal with, nuclear weapons could well make him more aggressive and dangerous. The aftershocks of a nuclear test will reverberate in South Korea and could shake its society, economy and political system to their foundations. Critics of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun will accuse him of pursuing a failed policy of appeasement that has condemned the North’s wretched masses to continuing enslavement while exposing the South to endless, escalating blackmail. Roh’s defenders will, in turn, blame the U.S. for provoking Pyongyang and will urge a redoubling of economic assistance and diplomatic suasion.
In Washington, long frustrated by Seoul’s unwillingness to step up pressure on the North, there will be sharp questions about the wisdom of continuing to deploy tens of thousands of U.S. troops to defend a country that has been subsidizing its own enemy with aid and trade. If Americans blame Seoul for having done too little to stop it, a nuclear test could well trigger an agonizing reappraisal of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. The resulting climate of uncertainty could damage investment and growth in the South, further heightening political tensions.
In Tokyo, a North Korean nuclear test would doubtless accelerate efforts by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to remove the pacifism clauses from Japan’s constitution and expand its military capabilities. The question of whether Tokyo should acquire its own nuclear deterrent will move from speculation to serious political debate. Moreover, with Kim brandishing nuclear weapons, Abe would probably fear that any conciliatory gestures could be misinterpreted as signs of weakness, and so would be far less likely to heed the advice of those who are urging him to give ground on public acknowledgment of Japan’s misdeeds during World War II. With Japan adopting a tougher defense posture, and probably faulting Beijing for not restraining its North Korean ally, any prospect of warmer relations with China will quickly evaporate.
If China’s leaders believe they can sidestep blame for Pyongyang’s actions, they are likely to be disappointed. If China fails to stop the North from crossing this last line, it will be humiliating for Beijing and will raise questions in Washington about the extent to which China has truly become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. The claim that Beijing is indispensable in keeping North Korea in check has helped the Bush administration fend off pressure for tough action on other issues, including China’s alleged unfair trading practices. With this prop gone, U.S. policy toward China could become more sharply confrontational.
Finally, a North Korean test would mark a painful defeat for the Bush administration. Having said repeatedly that it would never tolerate a nuclear-armed North, Washington may find that it has little choice but to do so. American credibility will be weakened and the system of international agreements meant to stop nuclear proliferation will suffer a possibly fatal blow. Pyongyang’s success will probably embolden Iran in its quest for nuclear capability while heightening Washington’s resolve to use any means necessary to stop it. And this is to say nothing of the possibility that North Korea may follow through on yet another threat that it has made, albeit obliquely, in recent years: to sell or transfer nuclear weapons or material to whomever it chooses.
A North Korean nuclear test would damage the national interests of all the major northeast Asian powers They would be well advised to join ranks and finally apply the coordinated diplomatic and economic pressures that provide the last best hope for a satisfactory, peaceful solution to the current crisis.