North Korea’s nuclear tests don’t matter. Worrying about them does.
So North Korea has made it known that it intends to conduct a nuclear test, making the ‘international community’ apoplectic. The UN Security Council has warned North Korea not to proceed with its plans, threatening ‘unspecified consequences’. Here are some of the options that the UN Security Council, the United States, Japan, South Korea and China have:. No error in punctuation there—there are no meaningful options. That’s why they are ‘monitoring the situation’ and ‘gathering information’, while North Korea feels bold enough to ratchet up the tension by violating the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas.
Brinkmanship is what Kim Jong Il specialises in. Those who created the taboo around nuclear tests are forced to demonstrate the appropriate consternation and turn the situation into a crisis. The Dear Leader must be loving it.
But here’s how much a North Korean nuclear test really matters:. No punctuation errors here too. Anxiety over nuclear tests owes itself to three reasons: first, North Korea can threaten the use of nuclear weapons to get its way around (and such threats will work); second, the domino effect will cause Japan, South Korea and perhaps Taiwan to procure their own nukes (and this in turn will knock more dominos down); third, North Korea can pass on the nuclear weapons to other countries or terrorist organisations. Anxiety is warranted, but each one of these reasons is just as valid even if those tests were not carried out.
Pyongyang’s nuclear blackmail has been on for some time, and is primarily directed at keeping what Robert Kaplan calls the ‘Kim Family Regime’ in power. This blackmail will continue even if there are no tests. For Japan and South Korea to wait until North Korea conducts its nuclear tests before developing nuclear weapons capabilities of their own would be an impossible act of recklessness. There is already a working system of nuclear deterrence in North East Asia. North Korean nuclear tests may make the mechanisms more explicit, but won’t change the mechanisms themselves much. North Korea does not have to conduct tests for its nukes to make their way into the hands of rogue nations and terrorists. In any case, Pakistan has already proved that those designs work.
Pyongyang’s nuclear tests, therefore, are a crisis only to those who would like the dogma of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to persist. This is not to say that there is nothing to worry about a nuclear-armed North Korea (there is plenty), only that the tests don’t threaten international security any more or any less than now. What they do threaten, though, is the relevance of the NPT, which may well die a much faster death if Pyongyang goes ahead and tests. [Related post: the future of non-proliferation]
North Korean nuclear tests won’t change the fundamental security environment prevailing in its region (a case may be made that less ambiguity over the North’s capabilities is a good thing). However, the more concern the United States and North Korea’s Asian neighbours demonstrate, the more Kim Jong Il is likely to proceed with the tests. The way to stop the tests, ironically, is not to care. Those who believe otherwise could at least pretend not to. Just ask any parent.
Update: (via Gaurav Sabnis) North Korea has announced that it has conducted those tests. Note the breathless and self-contradictory reporting:
The test alters the balance of power in northeast Asia and touches off grave new concerns about the proliferation of refined nuclear material or devices to other rogue states or terrorist groups. North Korea already generates tens of millions of dollars a year through its thriving underground sales of missiles and other sophisticated weaponry to nations including Iran and Syria. [WP, emphasis added]