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3Qs: North Korean nuclear tests challenge US, China

Earlier this week, North Korea detonated a nuclear weapon that it says brings the secluded nation a step closer to having the capability to attack the United States with a nuclear missile. We asked Suzanne Ogden, a professor of political science and an expert on U.S.-Asian policy, to weigh in on how the test impacts foreign policy and how nations like the U.S. and China can act to prevent further nuclear proliferation.

The White House called North Korea’s latest nuclear test, which came on the eve of the State of the Union, “highly provocative.” Beyond demonstrating its nuclear capabilities, what do you think North Korea hoped to accomplish with this test?

It seems clear that the North Korean government wishes to miniaturize nuclear capacity so it could be put on the tip of a missile. The purpose of such a nuclear-tipped missile would be to hit the United States. So apart from the concrete purpose of testing and developing this capability, the question is why the United States would be a target. The answer is North Koreans are hugely frightened of the United States and feel their best way of protecting themselves from an American attack would be to establish a deterrent capability.

More likely, further proliferation would give North Korea the capability to threaten one of our major allies in its neighborhood—namely Japan or South Korea—with a nuclear attack. Of course, to attack one of these allies, with whom the U.S. has mutual defense treaties (an attack on one of them is considered an attack on the United States), would be far easier than launching an accurate missile attack against the distant United States; but they could still expect the U.S. to retaliate on behalf of our ally.

China is among North Korea’s closest neighbors and one of the few countries that provides goods such as oil and food to the predominantly secluded nation. What role can China play in responding to the latest nuclear test and international attempts to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons program?

China is in a difficult spot; whatever it does, the consequences could be bad for the country. First, if China does not give aid to North Korea, it is faced with the possibility of hundreds of thousands more North Korean refugees streaming over the Chinese border because of desperate circumstances: starvation, lack of fuel, a malfunctioning economy. There are already at least 300,000 to 500,000 North Koreans living in the border areas of China, causing various problems for the country.

Further, an unstable North Korea is a dangerous North Korea, owing to the possible internal challenge to the leadership’s legitimacy because of the suffering economy. Unstable countries are far more likely to act irrationally than stable ones. If China encourages the North Koreans to relinquish their nuclear program and to agree to accept aid and investment from South Korea (and the United States), or if the U.S. attacks North Korea to stop its nuclear program, it risks the possibility of a Korean peninsula united under South Korean leadership. This would mean that the United States would actually, via its relationship with South Korea, be sitting on China’s borders.

And third, if China does not oppose the North Korean development of nuclear weapons, it risks the possibility that both Japan and South Korea will then engage in a nuclear arms race. Given the Chinese government’s already tense relationships with both countries, a regional arms race is perhaps the worst possible outcome for China.

What can the United States do to prevent North Korea and Iran, countries which have long resisted international pressure, from further developing nuclear programs?

Years ago, we were able to convince the North Koreans to stop their nuclear program with promises of aid, but for various reasons the aid did not materialize and the North Koreans felt betrayed. (The United States no doubt had reasons it thought legitimate for cutting off aid.) Since then, they have become more suspicious of the U.S. than ever and basically refuse to negotiate. The fact that the U.S. puts conditions on negotiations is an obstacle (as it is for Iran) to resolving the issue.

The U.S. unilateral decision to invade Iraq because it was allegedly developing a nuclear program added to their insecurity. The ‘getting to yes’ strategy that worked to get the USSR to stop the arms race and agree to nuclear arms reduction would certainly help here: The U.S. needs to understand the fears and concerns behind its push for nuclear weapons by both North Korea and Iran. It is not in the national interest of Iran or North Korea to waste money on programs they cannot afford, not to mention programs that may not achieve the objectives they seek. But they do have reasons for pursuing these programs and we need to understand them and do what we can to address their concerns. If we do this, we are more likely to successfully negotiate a termination of these programs.

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