International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

14 January 2016

The international community must do whatever it can to stop North Korea’s nuclear program going any further, writes John Carlson.

North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test on 6 January 2016 (its previous tests were in 2006, 2009 and 2013). In so doing North Korea has violated Security Council resolutions and the international norm against nuclear testing – it is the only country to conduct tests since India and Pakistan in 1998.

North Korea claimed this device was both miniaturised and a hydrogen bomb. Miniaturisation means making a nuclear weapon of a practical size and weight. Conducting nuclear tests is one thing, being able to make a weapon sufficiently small, robust and reliable to deploy on a missile is quite another. We don’t know if North Korea has this capability yet, but this test has probably brought it closer.

Most experts doubt North Korea has the capability as yet to produce a hydrogen bomb. This involves a complex design in which a fission explosion (a conventional atomic bomb) triggers a fusion reaction between hydrogen elements. A hydrogen bomb can have more than 1,000 times the explosive force of an atomic bomb. The recent explosion is much smaller than expected for testing such a weapon. However, this won’t be known for sure unless gases are released from the test, which was underground, and these are found and analysed. No gases were detected from the 2013 test, and it’s possible the nature of the latest test will remain uncertain – enabling North Korea to maintain its claim it was a hydrogen bomb.

It would be a mistake to dismiss this test as just the latest attention-seeking antic from an idiosyncratic regime used to shaking down its neighbours. The implications could hardly be more serious. North Korea has recently tested a submarine-launched missile, and clearly aspires to a submarine-based nuclear arsenal that could be used to threaten not only the United States but any country.

History shows that mistakes and misunderstandings took the US and the Soviet Union close to nuclear war on several occasions. There is every reason to be concerned about the intentions and judgment of a nuclear-armed North Korea. In addition, what confidence can we have of North Korea’s ability to establish effective command and control systems against the accidental or unauthorised launch of nuclear missiles or effective security against theft of a nuclear weapon? Do we want the lives of millions to be hostage to the decisions of a North Korean submarine commander? And when the North Korean regime finally collapses, who will end up with the nuclear weapons?

More on this: Arms control may be the only realistic option to deal with North Korea | Ramesh Thakur

North Korea claims it needs a nuclear deterrent against US “hostility”. This is nonsense – leaving aside whether any US attack is likely, North Korea has effective deterrence through the proximity of its artillery forces to Seoul and its ability to inflict massive casualties before these forces could be eliminated.

What can the international community and individual countries do? Since 2006, the Security Council has passed four resolutions calling on North Korea to end its nuclear weapon program and ballistic missile tests, and imposing sanctions. Now the Security Council is meeting to consider further action. The problem is, the existing sanctions are not being adequately enforced. Many countries continue to trade with North Korea, for example, North Korean small arms are bought by African countries, the North Korean elite flaunts European luxury goods, and North Korea is able to evade export controls for various items needed for its nuclear and missile programs. It’s not only a question of imposing tougher sanctions but seriously enforcing the current sanctions.

The country with the greatest influence on North Korea is China. China is conflicted: it is angered by North Korea’s provocations, but fears the turmoil of regime collapse, with millions of refugees flooding into China, and it does not want to see a unified Korea. On the other hand, North Korean behaviour threatens Chinese interests.

At the least this behaviour will ensure increasing US military involvement in North Asia. More extreme consequences could include Japan and/or South Korea seeking nuclear weapons, and China itself being the target of North Korean nuclear weapons. These scenarios might seem improbable, but if North Korea continues on its present course the consequences are unpredictable and just as dangerous for China as anyone else.

North Korea is dependent on China for oil supplies, transport links, etc – this gives China the ability to apply pressure that North Korea cannot ignore. The US is likely to make China’s preparedness to do this a key test of the US-China relationship.

It is essential for the international community to do whatever is necessary to stop the North Korean nuclear program proceeding any further. Stronger sanctions should include cutting all financial links, referring the leadership to the International Criminal Court as recommended by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and stopping all but humanitarian trade. Some argue that pressuring North Korea is counterproductive – but North Korea must be left in no doubt how seriously the rest of the world views its nuclear weapon ambitions. If North Korea is not prepared to freeze its nuclear and missile programs and return to negotiations on security, economic and humanitarian issues, bringing about regime collapse must be seriously considered as the “least worst” option.

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Carlson, John. 2017. "North Korea’S Global Threat - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.