North Korea’s nuclear test

Author: Ron Huisken, ANU

Pyongyang’s third nuclear test, conducted on 13 February 2013, sparked a flurry of commentary on what to do next.

All the familiar and varied themes of response have been refreshed — toughen the sanctions and accelerate countermeasures (especially against ballistic missiles), engage North Korea unreservedly, win its confidence and persuade it to seek security through economic development, or engage it from a realist standpoint as the prospective (but inevitable) manager of an operational missile-based nuclear arsenal.

The strongest and most compelling expression of the last theme has come from Muthiah Alagappa. Alagappa argues that all concerned, but especially the United States, China, Japan and South Korea, have to this point failed to address ‘the real concern of national security that has driven the North Korean nuclear weapon program’. Alagappa goes on to make a number of not-unreasonable judgements about the possible costs of accepting the DPRK’s nuclear accomplishments and how these costs would or could be bounded.

Even if the world must now accept the reality of a nuclear North Korea, the core question remains the diagnosis of North Korea’s determined drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Is the core driving force really ‘national security’? What if the core driving force was ‘regime security’? Would that make a difference? Should (or would) good policy settings to cope with the reality of a nuclear North Korea be different if the driving motive was deemed to be regime security rather than national security?

I think that North Korea’s driving motive is regime security and that this change in the diagnosis does (or should) have consequences for policy. Most particularly, it suggests that policy responses to North Korea as a state with nuclear weapons should be considered as falling into two categories. First, there is the dry or unemotional policy box of striving to put in place the agreements, understandings and processes that offer the strongest prospect of stability and responsible management of the nuclear dimension of the confrontation on the Korean peninsula. This policy objective should be viewed as distinct from a second category: the broader package of objectives identified over the course of the Six-Party process, which aspired to defuse, and ultimately erase, this enduring confrontation. I am not of course suggesting that this can be a mechanical or clinical process — North Korea will strive mightily to preclude any such layered policy response — but it can still be an attitude that informs the negotiating position of the other five Six-Party participants.

The purpose of this approach is obvious enough: to signal to Pyongyang that perpetuating its current system of governance is not a goal of any value to any of its interlocutors. Pyongyang is undoubtedly attracted to the package that took shape in the Six-Party Talks — new diplomatic relations, security assurances, a peace agreement, and major economic assistance focussed on agriculture and energy. But the unstated premise has always been that agreement on and implementation of any such package does not in any way put the Kim dynasty, or the tools of internal governance that it has developed, at risk.

Pyongyang needs to be made more aware that this position is not a strength that it brings to the negotiating table but a potential vulnerability that others could be provoked to expose. Pyongyang has been permitted (not least by the USSR/Russia and China) to fabricate and entrench a national narrative, a narrative that sustains the juche and military-first philosophies and spawned a uniquely ruthless authoritarian state that blatantly distorts the historical record. Simply rewarding this creation is unlikely to turn out to be good policy. The more probable outcome is that a North Korea accepted as a state with nuclear weapons will continue to be the belligerent, truculent and petulant actor that it has been in the past. As in the past, it is critical that Pyongyang receive a clear and unified message not just on the lavish 6-Party talks package on offer but on the deeper expectations that underpin it.

Ron Huisken is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, the Australian National University.

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