Natalie Bormann on North Korea's nuclear testing and rhetoric

The tension surrounding North Korea and its developing nuclear weapons program continues to mount, following the country’s announcement in late May that it had successfully conducted an underground nuclear test. Political fallout includes international condemnation of the testing and continued threats by ailing president Kim Jong-il of military retaliation against the United States, if provoked. Natalie Bormann, Northeastern doctoral candidate in international politics, instructor in politics, and author of “National Missile Defense and the Politics of U.S. Identity,” discusses the situation.

Why does North Korea continue to set off nuclear explosions in defiance of worldwide treaties?
The timing of North Korea’s nuclear test is indeed interesting, if not ironic, coming just days after the suicide of former South Korean President Roh Moo-huyn and at a time when relations between the U.S. and North Korea appeared to be improving. Roh Moo-huyn had firmly supported a policy of engagement with North Korea. Also, in 2007, North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear reactor, and the U.S. removed the country from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

It seems international relations with North Korea have worsened.
Relations between North and South Korea have been deteriorating; South Korea’s current government is less conciliatory than the previous one. And the Six Party Talks — a series of meetings among the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea and Russia that tackle issues including North Korea’s weapons program — have actually stalled. The U.S. thought that North Korea did not keep to its end of the agreement (North Korea provided inadequate information on nuclear activities and rejected stricter verification protocols, for example). At the same time, North Korea seems to have been experiencing some succession-related internal turmoil since Kim Jong-il’s stroke in 2008, and rhetoric toward its neighbors and the international community has become much more aggressive.

What are the politics behind the May 25 test? To get more concessions from Washington? For North Korea to display its nuclear or technological prowess to its own population?
No doubt, North Korea’s behavior can be seen as an effort to get President Obama’s attention and to push the North Korean issue further up the Washington agenda, since the U.S. administration is in the process of formulating its policy towards North Korea. It can be seen as an attempt to possibly induce further concessions. Also, North Korea has made it clear that it favors direct, bilateral talks with the U.S. instead of the six-party process.

Should we be afraid that North Korea will fire off a nuclear missile aimed at another country?
Most of us perceive North Korea’s latest actions as reckless. And North Korea’s announcement of its underground test in May seems to confirm the U.S. intelligence community’s concern about North Korea’s capability to launch long-range missiles with nuclear warheads. So, the country’s overall progress in missile technology may be of concern.

You have said it is not the weapons per se that create a sense of fear or worry.
Right. The fear stems more from concerns about North Korea’s leadership than from its expanding military capabilities, and this is also where the solution ought to be sought. After all, people seem to be far less afraid of the fact that the U.S. has nuclear capabilities — or the U.K. and France, for that matter. We are generally accepting of the U.S. weapons capabilities, but not of North Korea and its program.

How should President Obama respond? What can he do?
I think the Obama administration is in a really difficult situation. As mentioned, North Korea seeks more bilateral commitments with the U.S. as opposed to multinational agreements, and this is an opportunity for President Obama to be seen as taking a strong position in the relationship. North Korea may look to the U.S. for recognition as a nuclear state and seek to receive economic aid in return for keeping its nuclear program small. So far, the Obama administration does not want to entertain that kind of deal.

President Obama recently had stern words about North Korea, stating, among other things, that its rhetoric presented a “grave threat.” What do you make of this?
I do not suggest that one should be dismissive of North Korean rhetoric, nor would I want to deny that the current nuclear developments may pose a grave threat. However, similar rhetoric has come out of North Korea in the past. Any nuclear developments should raise concern, but we should remember that while North Korea tested a nuclear device of some sort, it does not equate to a nuclear weapon.