On October 9, North Korea announced that it had just conducted a nuclear test. The test came just six days after an official statement by the Foreign Ministry that North Korea would proceed with such a test. Experts had warned unequivocally that the North Korean government in Pyongyang wasn't simply bluffing this time. But the US administration, by ignoring such warnings and responding with the usual blackmail, practically asked for this to happen.
Leon V Sigal, author of Disarming Strangers, recently noted that 'the only way to stop North Korea's nuclear test would be for the US to negotiate seriously with North Korea - a prospect that seems remote at the moment.'
Therefore, the North Korean nuclear test was a predictable outcome. When the US continued to ignore North Korea by refusing dialogue and maintaining financial sanctions - despite North Korea's proclamation of nuclear statehood and test-firing of missiles - Pyongyang turned to nuclear testing in a last-ditch attempt to be taken seriously.
The nuclear test is the culmination of five years of the US administration's policy towards North Korea. Up until 2002, North Korea had mothballed its plutonium reactor and reprocessing facility, in compliance with the agreed framework. It was only after October 2002, when US president George Bush's special envoy James Kelly went to Pyongyang to pick a fight, and November 2002, when the US stopped supplying North Korea with heavy oil - in violation of the Agreed Framework - that North Korea withdrew from the Non-proliferation Treaty and restarted operation of its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon.
Even as the invasion of Iraq reinforced the perception that countries actually need weapons of mass destruction to deter US aggression, people like Richard Pearle publicly bragged how 'we've already smashed the Iraqi Republican Guard. We can do the same with North Korea's army.'
Moreover, the US listed North Korea among its potential nuclear strike targets, in the Nuclear Posture Review submitted to Congress in December 2001. A threat of this kind against a non-nuclear state clearly violates the Non-proliferation Treaty.
By levelling such naked threats for years against a country that had acquired plutonium reprocessing capability, Washington was in effect begging North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.
As a matter of fact, nuclear blackmail against North Korea has been ongoing for nearly half a century - since 1957, when the US, in violation of the Armistice Agreement, brought nuclear bombs, missiles and mines into South Korea.
Although the Bush Administration, along with the South Korean, Japanese, and the Chinese authorities, is currently condemning North Korea's nuclear test, the International Court of Justice said in a 1996 ruling that it could not 'determine categorically whether the use of nuclear weapons by a state would be unlawful even under extreme circumstances in which the very survival of the state is at stake.' In a way, Bush's North Korea policy served merely to strengthen North Korea's missile and nuclear capabilities without being able to replace the regime.
UN sanctions are not the solution
The aftermath of North Korea's test has become the subject of utmost interest. Pyongyang apparently wishes to gain de facto recognition as a nuclear power, or to gain a more potent leverage for negotiation. This is one possible outcome, but the immediate effect would be a tightening of sanctions through the United Nations (UN).
The Bush administration is obliged, by its own fierce rhetoric of the past, to show a tough response to North Korea's test. And yet 'there's really nothing much the US can do in the event of a nuclear test by North Korea other than to issue condemnations through a new UN resolution', as Professor Don Oberdorfer of Johns Hopkins pointed out.
Washington can't take the military option for three reasons. First, the administration's hands are tied to Iraq, on top of which it has to deal with Iran. As strong as the US military is, it can't afford to pick another fight in another front. This must have been part of Pyongyang's calculation. Even a limited, pinpoint strike on North Korea nuclear facilities could easily escalate into a far wider conflict. General Gary Luck, who commanded US forces in South Korea in 1994, estimated that if the US strikes North Korean nuclear facilities, a full-scale war would erupt in which 'one million lives would be lost, including those of 80,000 to 100,000 Americans. Material costs would exceed $100 billion.'
Second, the US must take into account how China and South Korea would react. The two might agree to UN sanctions - if not on their intensity - but they are not likely to support military action. For China, the prospect of having US forces right across the Chinese border is unacceptable. For South Korea, the scale of the destruction that would result from war with North Korea could be crippling beyond recovery.
According to a study released in 2005, a surgical strike on North Korea's nuclear facility, at worst, can turn the entire Korean peninsula into a radioactive desert for 10 years. At best, 80% of living organisms within a 10-15 km radius of the strike will die in a couple of months, and the radioactive fallout will travel up to 1400km - enough to cover Seoul.
If Washington presses North Korea too hard, South Korea could move closer to China, which in turn would hurt US hegemony in Northeast Asia. Preserving US hegemony in the region has been the preoccupation of US strategists like Zbigniew Brzezinski ever since the end of the Cold War. US is in the difficult position of having to play North Korea's threat as a means of bolstering the US-Korea alliance, and at the same time avoid escalating the tension too much.
Third, US public opinion against war (which has now moved to the mainstream) is making it even more difficult for the administration to resort to military action.
In the given circumstances, the Bush administration is likely to apply pressure on North Korea through UN sanctions first, and then wait and see how things develop, trying to figure out how to respond. An administration that has been incapable of devising a unified policy on North Korea for the last five years is unlikely to have suddenly found one in the course of a few days.
Progressive forces in South Korea must oppose UN sanctions as well as military action by the US, for the sanctions themselves could further de-stabilise the situation. We shouldn't lend our support to the South Korean government's plan to support UN sanctions. Sanctions will only make ordinary North Koreans suffer. The only way to stop nuclear proliferation is to force the US to quit threatening North Korea.
A dangerous game
North Korea claimed its nuclear test would 'serve to defend peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula and the region surrounding it.' That is just false. Even if there's no immediate military action from the US, North Korea's test will serve to intensify tension in Northeast Asia.
North Korea's test will encourage Japan to go nuclear, which will then encourage South Korea and Taiwan to follow suit. The result will be a Northeast Asian region living in constant fear of thermonuclear war.
From the point of view of North Korea state officials, nuclear arms may seem the only possible deterrent against Washington's aggression. But from the perspective of the ordinary people of Northeast Asia, North Korea's nuclear test is a dangerous gamble with their lives that has nothing to do with socialism. It could also have a negative impact on people's movements in South Korea, Japan, etc.
The logic of MAD (mutually assured destruction) can ensure neither peace nor the survival of the regime. Humanity went near the brink of thermonuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Only four years ago, India and Pakistan came close to waging nuclear warfare over Kashmir. Threatening the workers and the people of other countries with nuclear weapons will only serve to whip up fear and thus damage their real potential to defeat imperialism.
All Together, Korean socialist group
October 9, 2006