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Testing times for North Korea

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In Brief

North Korea's latest nuclear test has, both literally and figuratively, sent seismic shockwaves around Northeast Asia.

The negative repercussions of the test will be most directly felt by the long-suffering people of North Korea itself, who desperately need the better living conditions that can only be achieved through increased international cooperation.


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But indirectly, the test has far-reaching implications for the region as a whole.

The aims of the North Korean regime seem clear. Although North Korea has previously twice tested nuclear weapons, in 2006 and 2009, it has so far lacked the capacity to create weapons small enough to be mounted on ballistic missiles. Following the country’s launch of a satellite last December, which demonstrated rapid advances in its missile technology, the government is now claiming the latest nuclear test as proof that it has miniaturised its bomb to warhead size. The truth of this claim is still to be confirmed, but North Korea’s determined — indeed, obsessive — pursuit of a usable nuclear weapon is rightly regarded with alarm by the rest of the world.

The international anger that has greeted the test is fully justified; but in framing responses, the international community needs to be conscious of the long-term regional dimensions of the problem.

For more than a decade, from the mid-1990s to 2006, two collaborative international initiatives attempted to find a solution to nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The first was the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), which brought together the United States, North and South Korea, Japan, and later also the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and other nations, in a scheme to encourage North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program in return for assistance with the peaceful use of nuclear energy for power generation. The second grouping was the Six-Party Talks, which were held between 2003 and 2007, providing a forum where the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia met to search for a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue.

But over the past six years these international initiatives have fallen apart. North Korean intransigence was the major, but not the only, reason for their failure. Other factors included lack of US Congressional support for KEDO and increasingly hard-line positions toward the Six-Party Talks in Japan and in South Korea under the Lee Myung-bak administration.

But now, more than ever, measured and internationally coordinated efforts are needed to prevent North Korea’s provocative actions from generating a chain reaction of negative consequences that could widen the already serious political fissures across the region.

The nuclear test will increase international pressure on China to rein in the North Korean government’s aggressive behaviour. There can be no doubt that China is profoundly annoyed and frustrated by North Korea’s actions, feelings that have been expressed in the stern protest that it issued to the North Korean government following the most recent test. In practice, though, China’s ability to impose its will on North Korea is limited, and its capacity to act decisively may be hampered by the fact that China itself is still in the midst of a crucial power transition to the new Xi Jinping regime. Careful strategy and international coordination are needed to ensure that responses to the nuclear test do not heighten frictions between China on the one hand and the United States, South Korea and Japan on the other.

The test was clearly timed to overshadow the inauguration of South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, which will take place on 25 February. It will also make it much more difficult for Park to take early steps to open dialogue with the North, and, unless handled sensitively, may undermine some of the initiatives that she has already taken to enhance ties between South Korea and China. Meanwhile, North Korea’s action in conducting the test has strengthened the hand of hawks in Japan’s newly elected government who hope to revise Japan’s post-war constitution to allow a substantial expansion of the Japanese military. Such moves would in turn heighten tensions between Japan and China.

The response to North Korea’s nuclear test needs to go far beyond condemnation in the United Nations and yet another round of sanctions — responses that have repeatedly proved to be ineffective. Instead, courage and initiative are needed to develop a new multilateral forum that can address North Korea’s long-term challenges to military and human security, while also bringing all the region’s major players into dialogue with one another.

Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki is an ARC Laureate Fellow based at the School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.

This article was first published here by the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

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