Contemporary Conflicts

Tit-For-Tat With North Korea

February 27, 2013


The tense situation over North Korea’s nuclear program continues to escalate. Last year it proclaimed itself a nuclear state in its constitution and then successfully launched a space rocket that is only a little different from one that could carry a warhead. If this months’ test was indeed nuclear then it can be considered as another irreversible step on their way to developing nuclear capacity. None of the international measures proved to be effective in dealing with this erratic state. The nukes for aid formula has ceased to work. Negotiations at this stage seem very unlikely.


Rituals of a superpower


Less than a year ago the regime embarrassed itself when it invited many foreign journalists who arrived and witnessed a failed attempt to launch a satellite. It was not their first failure, North Korea previously failed four times in launching this kind of rocket. But those times were different because on those occasions the government didn’t advertise those launches, thus it was not hard to cover up those failures and pretend that satellites were launched when they actually were not. This time North Koreans along with the rest of the world observed the failure.


After such an embarrassment the dear leader Kim Jong Un simply had to show the world and to his own population that the regime still could do the proper rituals of a “superpower”. Having learnt from the April failure that transparency about their tests doesn’t necessarily bring great success, North Korean leaders continued to conduct their tests in secrecy.


A nuclear power?


Thus, last December we saw the long-range rocket launch that was widely viewed as a test of ballistic missile technology and two months later – the third nuclear test. Did North Korea become a nuclear power? Well, last year it did adopt a new preamble to its constitution, calling itself “a nuclear and a militarily powerful state”.  


One would like to believe that this was a strong exaggeration. It is almost impossible to be absolutely sure about everything pertaining to North Korea because of the inability to check facts on the ground.   Even the last nuclear test is shrouded in mystery.


North Korea declared that it had used "a miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previous tests".  First of all, it is not absolutely clear whether the test was nuclear or if it was a conventional bomb blast meant to be perceived as a nuclear one. Experts’ assumption that the test was nuclear is based on the shape of its seismic signal and on the fact that the blast was coming from approximately the same site as two previous tests. Two previous tests had a magnitude of 3.9 and 4.5 respectively, this one according to the US geological survey had a magnitude of 4.9.


Secondly, if it was a nuclear test it remains  unclear what fissile material was used: plutonium or highly enriched uranium. As well, another question is whether this fissile material can be used for nuclear warhead missiles.


Highly enriched uranium would make North Korea’s nuclear program more threatening as it is easier to build a bomb with, while the use of plutonium requires very precise specifications.  Experts believe that previously North Korea used plutonium for its test devices, but in 2007 it was forced to stop plutonium production and later acknowledged having facilities for production of highly enriched uranium.  Foreign intelligence agencies so far found no traces of nuclear-related particles on the site of the bomb test.  


On the verge of the cliff


Well, if North Korea indeed conducted a successful test, it does makes it look dangerous, but it does not necessarily mean that it has a deliverable weapon. Experts disagree on North Korea’s actual nuclear capacities. Nevertheless, given a very erratic nature of North Korean leaders its declarations should not be overlooked or dismissed.


Its goal is to develop a small and light warhead that can be mounted on a missile. And a very significant step towards this goal was a successful launch of a space rocket last December. If the test was indeed a test of a nuclear miniaturized bomb then it is going to be another milestone for North Korea in the attempt to directly threaten the United States.


Humanitarian aid, engagement, isolation, deterrence and economic sanctions have all proven to be ineffective. Military actions can only bring apocalypses. The UN Security Council is running out of ideas on how to disarm North Korea. The claim about being a nuclear state fixed in the constitution makes it unlikely to bargain away its nuclear program. Moreover, recently North Korea posted a video on YouTube threatening Barack Obama and American troops with flaming destruction by a nuclear bomb. Neither U.S. nor any other government will accept a nuclear North Korea.


North Korea has gained speed in its nuclear chase, it will be considered weak on its part to go back on its positions and put its nuclear plans on the negotiation table.  Standing alone against the whole world, North Korean regime’s survival is only possible if it has weapons of mass destruction. Threatening with nukes will extend the regime’s life for as long as they will get aid in return. But if the regime finds itself on the very verge of the cliff it might use nukes as the last resort. 

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