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The new nuclear power

Observations on North Korea

On 25 May North Korea conducted a successful test of a plutonium-based nuclear weapon. Since the detection of the blast – similar in force to that of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the question of how to read this action, and how best to respond, has reverberated through the media and the halls of power.

Pyongyang last tested a nuclear missile in October 2006, when technical failure produced only a small blast. However, this latest explosion is proof that North Korea’s scientists and engineers have overcome earlier problems. Pyongyang is now a nuclear power.

The North was already testing its long-range missile capability, launching the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite on 5 April in defiance of international warnings. The US says that such a rocket could reach its western shores. There is little justification for the claim, but it is influential. The UN Security Council has threatened enhanced sanctions in response to the launch. Pyongyang has promised to respond to what it sees as blackmail with a second nuclear test.

The nuclear and long-range missile tests; the withdrawal from the 1953 Armistice Agreement; the threat to South Korea after it joined the US in the Proliferation Security Initiative to intercept North Korean ships transporting conventional arms and missiles. All of these actions indicate that Pyongyang is attempting to force Washington to engage seriously in seeking a settlement to help North Korea’s regime survive. (Reports suggest Kim Jong-il has named his successor – his third son, Kim Jong-un.) If this strategy does not work, the peninsula is in more danger than it has been for a generation.

Fifteen years ago the North Korean threat to global security seemed to have been neutralised by Bill Clinton. The 1994 Framework Agreement offered a diplomatic relationship with the US, including an end to sanctions imposed more than 40 years earlier, and the construction of two light water reactors (LWRs). In return, Pyongyang was tasked with the disablement of its Yongbyon reactor and freezing construction of two larger nuclear power plants. But the spirit of the agreement was broken on both sides. Construction of the two LWRs was painfully slow: Washington prevaricated, hoping the North would collapse. Pyongyang, too, delayed the process with demands that the workers get better wages. By 2002, the eight-year programme was overrunning by more than a decade.

It was then that George W Bush accused North Korea of having a second nuclear weapons programme. He produced no evidence of any kind, but the last remnants of the agreement were abrogated. The North’s options were to hold up a white flag or restart its nuclear programme. It chose the latter. For liberals in Washington this is a tragedy. But, for the ultra-neocon faction in the US, and for Japan’s neo-nationalists, the cloud has a silver lining. China has been deeply disturbed by the test. Unless President Obama is moved to engage seriously, the test will provide an excuse to continue development of the “Star Wars” technologies that will threaten Russia and China, as well as the official targets, Iran and North Korea. It will also provide Japanese neo-nationalists with an argument for Tokyo’s remilitarisation.

The nuclear test was certainly unwelcome, but not illegal, and at present the country is only a threat to its immediate neighbours, South Korea and Japan. But the North makes exaggerated claims and Washington builds on them. The payload capacity to carry a nuclear weapon to the US is not in place, and nor is the guidance system, necessary to make a launch anything more than a hopeful lob.

Resolving the impasse will require China to use its influence. Pyongyang must be persuaded to make concessions in exchange for a comprehensive settlement with Washington that will allow the North to continue the reforms, slow as they have been so far, that will take it into the global economy. Hardliners in Pyongyang, Tokyo and Washington will all want to continue to sabotage any such deal. But Beijing needs to apply the stick while the west proffers carrots, if not for today, then for tomorrow.

Glyn Ford, Labour MEP for South-West England, is the author of “North Korea on the Brink: Struggle for Survival” (Pluto, £18.99)