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Peril of nuclear adventurism
Publication Date : 15-02-2013
North Korea's third nuclear test, carried out this week after its tests in 2006 and 2009, exhibited a total disregard for international opinion that has become typical of the recalcitrant state. Its claim that it tested a miniaturised device will increase concerns that it is now closer to fitting a warhead on a ballistic missile.
A key issue, being investigated by experts, is whether the test involved uranium. If it did, it would give Pyongyang access to another method for nuclear fission existing along with its depleted stocks of plutonium. Not only is uranium enhancement hard to detect, but also there is a danger that other nations that possess uranium ore will be tempted to take a nuclear leaf out of the North Korean rule book on how to hold the world to ransom. Non-proliferation efforts have been strained already by Iran.
No doubt prepared for a new round of sanctions that are likely to follow its latest test, Pyongyang appears to have embarked on larger strategic calculations that override the pain of international opprobrium.
Paranoid about the possibility of enforced regime change initiated by Washington, North Korea sees its successful tests as creating the momentum for an international fait accompli that would alter its relations with the US.
According to this logic, Washington would eventually be obliged to recognise Pyongyang's nuclear programme, much as it did Pakistan's. However, this outcome is improbable because US acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear state would encourage Iran to go down the same path. A danger also lies in South Korea and Japan considering the nuclear option seriously because of the North's intransigence.
In the circumstances, the US could make a valuable difference to North Korean thinking by underscoring its opposition to nuclear adventurism while making it clear that the regime in Pyongyang is the North's business. For all its political incompatibility with that regime, South Korea, too, should assuage the North's fears because it is Seoul that literally would have to pay the price of precipitate Korean unification brought on by a sudden collapse of the Pyongyang regime.
China, which is exposed to the threat of a wave of refugees unleashed by political instability in its neighbour, has always tailored its fraternal policy towards North Korea with the goal of preventing regime implosion. Chinese fears cannot be disregarded. But given the high risks involved, Beijing should come down hard on its ally, both publicly and privately. China's own reputation as a rising Asian power with increasing international responsibilities is at stake.