North Korea: Third Nuclear Test

13 Feb, 2013    ·   3812

Rajaram Panda discusses international responses to, and strategic implications of, the recent test

Rajaram Panda
Rajaram Panda
Visiting Faculty, SLLCS, JNU

In the most audacious defiance of UN warnings, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test on 12 February 2013. What does this imply for both regional and global security? With Pyongyang having taken a crucial step towards its goal of building a bomb small enough to fit a missile capable of striking the US, what could be the likely response of the Obama administration? What course would China, its main ally, now take to rein in North Korea?

Third Nuclear Test
Pyongyang claimed to have used a “miniaturised and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously” and that the test “did not pose any negative impact on the surrounding ecological environment”. Given North Korea’s behaviour, such claims appear dubious and unacceptable. Indeed, following the country’s successful rocket launch in December 2012, there were speculations that a nuclear test was on the cards. The test is estimated to have been larger than the previous two conducted by the country, though probably less powerful than the first bomb the US dropped in Hiroshima in 1945.

International Reaction
US President Barack Obama termed the act as “highly provocative”, adding that it “undermines regional stability, violates North Korea's obligations under numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions, contravenes its commitments under the 19 September 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks, and increases the risk of proliferation”. Indeed, North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programme constitute a threat to US national security, therefore warranting the US’ remaining vigilant towards North Korea’s provocations. In his response, Obama not only reiterated his stand to defend his own country, but also pledged to defend its allies. In the same vein, US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, expressed concern regarding the kind of activities that “rogue” states like North Korea and Iran engage in, and the serious threat they pose to the US and the world. The US announced sanctions against four Chinese entities, and multiple others, for trading in prohibited items with North Korea, Syria and Iran. The others named included two entities from Belarus, two from Iran, two from Sudan, and one each from Syria and Venezuela.

Reactions from China, North Korea’s close ally, were equally harsh. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated it “resolutely opposes” the test and “strongly urge(s) North Korea to abide by (its) promise to denuclearise” and not take “further action that will worsen the situation”. The statement further added that China is firm in its stand for denuclearising the Korean peninsula, preventing nuclear proliferation, and safeguarding peace and stability in Northeast Asia. Though the country cautioned North Korea on it being susceptible to paying a “heavy price” if it proceeded with the test, it is unclear how China would act if the UN Security Council announces further measures.

Similarly, the UNSC, the NATO, Japan, South Korea, Britain, France, Germany, Australia and India condemned North Korea’s actions.

The question remains, however, what further sanctions could the UN impose to hurt North Korea? The truism is that there are few. The only penalty that would truly hurt the country would be a complete cut-off of oil and other aid from China. But will it work and will China really resort to such harsh measures? Even the threat from the US may be largely empty, given that trade is limited and the US and its allies have refrained from a naval blockade or other steps that could revive open conflict; which has been avoided on the Korean Peninsula since an armistice was declared 60 years ago.

India's Reaction
India expressed its concerned over North Korea’s nuclear test and said that Pyongyang acted “in violation” of its international commitments. It called upon the country “to refrain from such actions which adversely impact peace and stability in the region”.

India - North Korea - Pakistan Nexus

No country is more interested in the results of North Korea’s nuclear programme, or the West’s reaction to it, than Iran, which is pursuing its own uranium enrichment programme. The two countries have long cooperated on missile technology, and many intelligence officials believe they share nuclear knowledge as well, though so far there is no hard evidence of the same.

At the Conference on Disarmament, India drew attention
to the close links shared between North Korea and Pakistan in developing nuclear weapons, especially after Pakistan restated its opposition to the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty and the suspected nexus that enabled Pyongyang to proceed on the route towards armament. New Delhi has reason to worry if Pyongyang indeed used enriched uranium in the nuclear explosion, as that would demonstrate Islamabad’s imprint and establish former Pakistan Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, as the key player in furthering clandestine nuclear linkages between the two countries by personally taking compact discs to and from North Korea. Pakistan’s “proliferation linkages” and AQ Khan’s role in transferring the technology for enriching uranium to weapon grade, in exchange for the knowhow on missile development, to offset its imbalance with India’s integrated missile development programme; then led by APJ Abdul Kalam, now seems to be established. This is a matter of serious concern for India.

Pyongyang’s audacious move thus continues to destabilise the security of the region and therefore, demands measured responses from the powers having a stake in the peace and stability of the region.