Was Pyongyang's N-test Inevitable?
By Dr Shireen M. Mazari

The North Koreans finally conducted an underground nuclear test on Monday, October 9 -- after having given clear notice of this intent to the international community at least a week in advance. In fact, ever since the Bush Administration came to power and undermined the 1994 Framework Agreement the Clinton Administration had signed with North Korea, there had been a certain inevitability to what eventually happened on Monday. The Bush Administration had shown a deliberate reluctance to accommodate the North Koreans through diplomatic negotiations despite the limitations of the military option for the Korean peninsula. Instead of accommodation and negotiation, the US and its core state ally, Japan, had hardened their stance against North Korea.

The only hope that the nuclear issue of the Korean peninsula could be resolved peacefully was the initiation of the Six Party Talks that were a Chinese diplomatic initiative. For the Chinese, this was a major shift in their traditionally low-key approach to external issues and it showed not only a more confident China, but a China that was now prepared to take a lead role in its immediate region at least. That is why the success of the Six Party Talks was crucial for China within the context of international diplomacy, just as it was critical for the US to ensure that China did not succeed on this count.

If one examines the course of these talks, one will see how the US played along but gave not an inch of flexibility, which could have allowed this diplomatic move to succeed. The test by North Korea has of course shown the failure of these talks and with it of Chinese diplomatic efforts. That is why China has reacted strongly to the North Korean test, calling it "brazen". After all, by conducting this test, North Korea defied the advice of its closest ally and supporter -- one who had staked a lot on the success of diplomacy.

For the US, the North Korean test has allowed it to undermine China at the diplomatic level in its region and to put pressure on China to go along with a more punitive agenda against not only North Korea but also possibly Iran within the UN Security Council. The success of the six party talks would have led to pressure on the US for accepting a similar framework of negotiations in the context of Iran -- something the US is still not prepared to do given its continuing trauma from the Iranian Revolution. Clearly, the North Korean test has worked to the advantage of the US, especially at the diplomatic and strategic levels.

Yet it would be a mistake for the US and its allies to pursue a more hard-line approach towards Iran unless the US wants to use the nuclear issue as a pretext for redrawing of the borders of this region. In that case, it may want to push Iran into a nuclear test. But such political brinkmanship will bode ill for the rest of the world, which may be less suicidal than the Bush regime. The North Korean tests illustrate the need to allow diplomacy succeed through a little give on the part of the major powers.

Meanwhile, the North Korean test comes at a time when the leadership of Japan has passed on to a hardline revisionist leader, Shinzo Abe, who is already seeking to alter the Japanese Constitution so that Japan can become a stronger military power. Now it has the political rationale to justify such a shift. Even within the nuclear context, Japan is sitting on over 10 tons of plutonium and it has the largest fast breeder program in the world, so for Japan to become a nuclear power will require very little effort or financial cost. And now the political taboo may also lift. In fact, for the US this is the perfect opportunity to seek the nuclearization of its core state ally Japan for which it is seeking a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. As we know, so far such a membership seems to remain defined in terms of nuclear status.

The failure of the six party talks will make China reluctant to undertake such proactive initiatives in the future which again suits US interests since a regionally more active China threatens the continuation of unipolarity -- especially given China's commitment to multilateralism. That is why the US was not prepared to given an inch in the six party talks even as it was keen to keep them going to end in the inevitable failure that finally happened. The US role in the talks was one of duplicity and betrayal equal to the betrayal the Chinese have felt at the hands of North Korea -- a state they have supported against all odds. The Chinese certainly have a dilemma on their hands with the international community waiting to see how far they are prepared to go in terms of punitive UNSC action while ensuring the survival of the North Korean state -- and all this with increasing pressure from the US and its Western allies.

Apart from the Chinese, the other state to suffer a major setback has been South Korea -- at least in the short term. Not only does it have to now deal with a possibly nuclear weaponised North Korea, it has to face a militarily resurgent Japan supported by the US. South Korea, which gave up its nuclear program under pressure from the US, will now find itself leaning even more on the US, which will also undermine its efforts to reach out to North Korea for an eventual reunification. Once the generational turnover is complete in South Korea, the desire for reunification may die out anyway.

As for the international community, it has rightfully condemned the North Korean action, which defied all international appeals to the contrary. But a large part of the blame must lie with this international community, which failed to take action against the first proliferator after the inception of the NPT. This was India which tested in 1974 and which saw that the international community was not prepared to take any punitive action against it -- in fact, Western commentators like Britisher Leanord Beaton lauded India's test. Instead, Pakistan suffered the backlash, and this reflected the discriminatory approach to nonproliferation that has since marked the international community's approach to the issue. This approach has been recently highlighted in the nuclear deal the US signed with India which effectively seeks to legitimize India's nuclear weapon status outside of the nonproliferation regime.

Moreover, the Bush Administration has totally undermined international law and international norms of behavior by its unilateralist actions in Iraq and in the policies of illegal confinements, international abductions and renditions. Blair has called the North Korean action "irresponsible" and it is certainly that; but surely the Bush-Blair combine have set the new benchmarks for such irresponsibility. Of course, in strictly legal terms, North Korea has not broken any of its international treaty obligations since it left the NPT, legally, after giving the required three-month notification in January 2003. Article X:1 of the NPT allows a state to withdraw if it feels its adherence to the treaty has jeopardized its supreme interests.

The 90-day notice has to include a statement of the extraordinary events that are seen as jeopardizing its supreme interests, but there is no requirement for the veracity of its claims to be assessed by other member states. North Korea cited the US singling of this country, along with some other "axis of evil" states, for a preemptive nuclear strike (in the 2002 US Nuclear Posture Review) as well as a US threat of a blockade and military punishment. So in strict international law terms, the North Koreans have not contravened any legal obligations even as they have defied the international community, especially their friends. But given the present US administration and its Coalition of the Willing's political dispensation, there seems to have been a certain inevitability about the final act of North Korean defiance.

(The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Courtesy The News)

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