What are we going to do with North Korea?

Updated On: Oct 13, 2006

North Korea has detonated a nuclear device, or so it says.

Experts are still divided over this nuclear testing. Advocates of its failures say that the detonation is too small (in its megatons instead of kilotons) to be a genuine nuclear blast and that it could have been detonated by conventional explosives to fake the explosion. Supporters of the authenticity of the detonation say that it is a primitive nuclear device, small but proof of North Korea’s nuke program. Supporters differ basically in the size of the blasts with the Russian estimates placed highest.

Alarmists go to the extent of saying that North Korea tested another nuclear device on the second day with tremors felt in Japan. The Japanese authorities immediately responded, including in parliamentary debates that it was in fact an underwater earthquake off Japan’s northeast coast. Other alarmists say that North Korea is ready to test-deliver a nuclear capable warhead.

The international community stands united in its condemnation, including North Korea’s traditional ally China. The question is what to do next? Several options lie ahead. The first option is that of full economic sanctions, which almost certainly seems to be the current most favoured choice. It is also supported by most nations. The only difference is the extent of the impermeability of the sanctions.

John Bolton prefers tough sanctions but with allowance for humanitarian relief. China prefers a slap on the wrist but not enough to create an exodus of starving North Koreans moving across the Sino-North Korea borders. Japan is probably the most worried and prefers the toughest sanctions of all. Having started to implement the freezing of North Korea trade and bank accounts, Japan has now blocked off all North Korean ships from calling at its ports. South Korea, while being sympathetic, is forced to play a tough hand by slowing down rice and grain supplies and possibly decreasing its investments in North Korea, now increasingly seen as a relic from the sunshine policy of yore.   

Other options are available but are subject to vast differences in international opinions. The most lethal of which is a strike on North KoreaUSA’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has assured China and the regional powers that USA has no intentions of invading North Korea. That puts to rest this option. With vast arrays of artillery ranged across the North and South Korean borders and massed mainly around Seoul’s North, both the US and South Korea do not wish to see an infantry battle, especially not since US troops are still tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan in the ongoing war against terror. Nevertheless, the option of a pre-emptive strike remains. It is the option that the current Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe had raised previously in response to the earlier series of North Korean missile tests. This option is also kept alive by an augmented increase in US airpower in the Pacific. China has openly declared it will veto any armed action against North Korea.

The third option is pursued by China which is to persuade all to return to the six-party talks. But the same issues remain – North Korea will not budge unless US removes its economic sanctions against the Stalinist state. Eyes are on China to negotiate this difficult condition because most are convinced that additional sanctions by US and Japan are likely to have little impact on a state isolated from the global economy.

North Korea still considers China to be a special partner, allocating what little remains of its face-giving to its neighbour by informing the PRC 20 minutes before actually carrying out the test. This was a special concession immediately seized upon China to enhance its own improving relationship with Japan and US by conveying it to the two powers immediately.  


North Korea and the Bomb (NY Times, 10 October 2006)

Bush Rebukes North KoreaU.S. Seeks New U.N. Sanctions (NY Times, 10 October 2006)

For U.S., a Strategic Jolt After North Korea’s Test (NY Times, 10 October 2006)

Roundup: Int'l community urges DPRK to return to six-party talks (People’s Daily, 10 October 2006)

Beijing 'resolutely opposed' to DPRK nuclear test   (People’s Daily, 10 October 2006)

China issues warning to North Korea (AP, 10 October 2006)

North’s Test Seen as Failure for Korea Policy China Followed (NY Times, 9 October 2006)

N. Korea Reports 1st Nuclear Arms Test (NY Times, 9 October 2006)

DPRK says have conducted a nuclear test (People’s Daily, 9 October 2006)

White House: DPRK nuclear test would be "provacative" (People’s Daily, 9 October 2006)

North Korea says nuclear test successful (AP, 9 October 2006)

North Korea says nuclear test successful (Korean Central News Agency, 9 October 2006)

North Korea and the Dominoes (NY Times, 6 October 2006)

U.S. Weighs Sanctions Against North Korea (NY Times, 6 October 2006)