When former UK prime minister Harold Macmillan was once asked what was the greatest challenge for a statesman, he famously replied: “Events, my dear boy, events.” That must have resonated with US President Barack Obama when he was woken up in the middle of the night on 25 May to be informed that North Korea had just conducted its second nuclear test. According to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), 39 of its dedicated seismic stations “registered a signal measuring 4.52 on the Richter scale at 00:54 GMT”, indicating that this weapon is more powerful than the first one tested by North Korea in October 2006. There are several implications of this episode for the global community, including India, to consider.
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First, we are likely to see more provocative actions from Pyongyang as it pursues its strategy of brinkmanship. The nuclear test, which came in the wake of the launch of its longest range rocket till date in April (and possibly in response to the strongly worded United Nations Security Council statement condemning the rocket launch), has already been followed by a series of taunting short-range missile launches. The anticipated Security Council resolution later this week is likely to instigate yet another confrontational response from Pyongyang. The possibility of another nuclear test by North Korea cannot be ruled out.
Second, the nuclear test has exposed the abysmal failure of intelligence agencies, particularly in the US and China, to detect preparations for the test. This is reminiscent of the inability of the US intelligence agencies to discover preparations for the Indian nuclear tests 11 years ago. In fact, so concerned were the North Koreans about the US missing the test altogether that they actually passed on a message to the Americans through an intermediary in the UN an hour before conducting the test! Similarly, neighbouring China, which has prided itself on having the greatest information about and influence over Pyongyang, was caught completely off-guard.
In fact, it was the nascent CTBTO which was the first to record the test and break the news globally, even though only 70% of the 337 monitoring facilities around the world that make up its International Monitoring System are up and running (for details see www.ctbto.org/verification-regime). In doing so, the new organization has resoundingly answered critics who were concerned that nuclear tests could not be effectively detected or verified. And all of this even without the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) having entered into force. Currently, only nine states, including India, stand in the way of CTBT coming into force.
Third, indeed, there is a strong case to be made for ensuring CTBT comes into force at the earliest. Of the eight states with nuclear weapons, three (the US, China and Israel) have signed, but not ratified the CTBT. There are already serious moves, led by senator John Kerry, to facilitate CTBT’s ratification by the US Senate. This will compel both China and Israel, albeit reluctantly, to follow suit. India has the dubious distinction of being in the company of Pakistan and North Korea as the only three states with nuclear weapons that have yet to sign the CTBT. If India is serious about preventing nuclear proliferation, as defence minister A.K. Antony said with reference to the North Korean test, then it is high time New Delhi reversed its opposition to the CTBT.
Fourth, proliferation on the Korean peninsula is not a problem confined to that region but has a direct bearing on global security, including India’s. Given reports of the close nuclear and missile cooperation between North Korea and Pakistan and the reported cooperation between North Korea and Iran (possibly through Pakistan and the A.Q. Khan network), there is reason for New Delhi to be concerned about a further enhancement in the nuclear and missile capabilities of Pyongyang. The latter prospect has been indicated in a pioneering report jointly prepared by a team of US and Russian technical experts on Iran’s nuclear and missile potential (see www.ewi.info/groundbreaking-us-russia-joint-threat-assessment-iran-O ).
Finally, despite the prospect of more provocation from North Korea, there are no military options, as US defence secretary Robert Gates categorically stated. An overstretched US military simply does not have the capacity to take on yet another military mission. Similarly, none of the US allies in the region or even China would contemplate such military action on their own.
Thus, the only likely approach will have to be a political-diplomatic one. However, an approach that only imposes sanctions is unlikely to be effective; it would also have to include possible incentives for Pyongyang to want to engage with the global community. For such an approach to be successful there would have to be a consensus of action between at least the five permanent Security Council members, especially China and Russia. This will certainly be a challenge. However, if the global community fails to show unity of purpose and action, the world will have no option but to prepare for the unthinkable and learn to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org