Heading for Disaster

Written by S. M. Hali  •  Analysis  •  April 2013 PDF Print E-mail

North Korea’s latest nuclear test has given the global community enough reason to fret.

In terms of its nuclear objectives, North Korea has behaved like the bad boy of the block and has been defying international obligations, making its nuclear weapons program a curious mix of defiance, deceit and stealth.

Officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), North Korea was a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but withdrew in 2003, citing the failure of the United States to fulfill its end of the Agreed Framework (a 1994 agreement between the states to limit the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions, begin normalization of relations and help the DPRK meet its energy needs through nuclear reactors). On October 9, 2006, North Korea announced that it had successfully conducted a nuclear test for the first time. Both the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and Japanese seismological authorities detected an earthquake of 4.3 magnitude in North Korea, corroborating some aspects of DPRK’s claims. On January 6, 2007, the North Korean government announced that it had developed nuclear weapons; an admission, which shocked the world. Following its 2009 second nuclear test, possibly at the site of the first nuclear test at Mantapsan, Kilju County, in the north-eastern part of North Korea, it became evident that the country had acquired a small stockpile of relatively simple nuclear weapons. North Korea is assumed to have at least six nuclear weapons but its military uranium enrichment program could potentially boost the stockpile to as many as 48 weapons by 2015.

No amount of sanctions, threats or cajoling by the international watchdog, IAEA, could deter DPRK to sway from the path it had chosen. Diplomatic efforts at keeping a lid on DPRK’s nuclear objectives have been complicated by the different goals and interests of regional neighbors. While none of the parties desire a North Korea with nuclear weapons, Japan and South Korea are especially concerned about DPRK’s counter-strikes following possible military action against it. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and South Korea are also apprehensive regarding the economic and social consequences should this situation cause the DPRK government to collapse.

The Obama administration has been flexible and demonstrated more willingness to negotiate with DPRK than the previous administration and has indicated that de-nuclearizing the Korean peninsula is a priority. A February 2012 bilateral meeting in Beijing resulted in an agreement to halt uranium enrichment in exchange for U.S. food aid, which has now been cancelled. The agreement included a moratorium on long-range missile tests. Additionally, the DPRK agreed to allow IAEA inspectors to monitor operations at Yongbyon, its nuclear scientific research center. The United States reaffirmed that it had no hostile intent and was prepared to improve bilateral relationships, and agreed to ship humanitarian food aid to North Korea. However, after DPRK’s execution of a provocative long-range missile test in April 2012, the U.S. terminated the agreement and refused to proceed with the promised food aid, thus deteriorating the situation.

On February 11, 2013, the USGS detected a magnitude of 5.1 seismic disturbance, reported to be a third underground nuclear test. Without mentioning the exact yield, DPRK has officially reported it as a successful nuclear test with a lighter warhead, which delivers more force than before. The latest development has received international disapproval and censure.  UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon condemned the test calling it a “clear and grave violation” of Security Council resolutions. Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) called on North Korea to comply fully with its obligations to all relevant UNSC resolutions and to its commitments under the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party. The EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton stated, “This nuclear test is a further blatant challenge to the global non-proliferation regime,” adding that it poses a threat to international stability.

NATO condemned it in the strongest terms while President Barack Obama called the test “highly provocative,” saying that it “undermines regional stability.” He vowed to take actions to defend the U.S. and its allies. The United States sent aircrafts equipped with sensors that may be able to determine whether it was a plutonium or uranium weapon. Even the traditional friends of DPRK, Russia and China, have voiced serious concern. Russia “decisively condemned” the nuclear test calling it a violation of North Korea’s international obligations while the Foreign Minister of the PRC, Yang Jiechi declared that China “resolutely” opposes the latest nuclear test conducted by the DPRK. Following the nuclear test, even Iran, which has been chastised by the international community for its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, stated through its Foreign Ministry spokesperson, that all nuclear weapons should be “destroyed.” There are apprehensions that if North Korea is let off the hook, Iran may take a cue from the test and press on with its suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons pleading that “what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander!” However, it is hoped that the Iranians will display more responsibility.

As mentioned earlier, the DPRK’s stance of food and energy shortage may avert severe sanctions by the UN for the time being. While the acquisition and use of a working North Korean long-range nuclear weapon is concerning to many states, the more immediate danger lies in North Korea’s lack of nuclear security and safety standards. DPRK’s refusal to allow IAEA inspectors into its nuclear facilities create a very plausible scenario for a nuclear accident; no one is certain regarding the standards of safety measures being practiced, if any. This leads to additional questions about nuclear materials safety and security and the potential for terrorist groups to steal or gain access to sensitive weapons materials. Out of 32 countries thought to have nuclear weapons materials, North Korea ranks last in safety rating. Additionally, many nuclear weapons experts are concerned about the possibility of North Korea selling or providing sensitive nuclear materials or weapons designs to other countries and indulge in nuclear proliferation. North Korea’s nuclear objectives regarding the acquisition of nukes are obvious but remaining out of IAEA’s loop is a cause for serious concern. 

Group Captain (R) Sultan M. Hali, now a practicing journalist, writes for print media, produces documentaries and hosts a TV talk show. He is currently based in Islamabad.

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