VLADIVOSTOK, Russia -- On Jan. 6, the North Korean government announced to the world that it had conducted a successful test of a hydrogen bomb. There are significant doubts as to whether the device detonated was actually a thermonuclear bomb. For that, the energy yield should have been by orders of magnitude greater. According to preliminary assessments, this most likely was an "ordinary" atomic explosion, possibly enhanced with tritium or deuterium. However, this gives little comfort. Hydrogen or not, North Korea's latest test is another step in its steady advance towards a full-fledged nuclear capability. Coupled with the North's ballistic missile program, which is also making incremental progress, this means that at some point in the future Pyongyang's regime will be capable of delivering long-range nuclear strikes against the countries it counts among its adversaries. Of course, the United States is at the top of North Korea's potential hit list.
Immediate international response to the test was predictable. The major powers issued public denouncements, while the United Nations Security Council convened for an emergency meeting. But, beyond rhetorical condemnations and probably some symbolic sanctions, we are unlikely to see any substantial actions that could help resolve the North Korean nuclear problem. The range of available tools to deal with the DPRK is extremely limited. When faced with serious offenses committed by "pariah states" like North Korea, Washington tends to reflexively fall back on two options: military force and economic sanctions. However, neither of them is going to work in this case.
North Korea has for a long time been the most heavily sanctioned state in the world.
Using military force to take out the DPRK's nuclear facilities is off the table as this may provoke a furious retaliation by Pyongyang and precipitate a large-scale war on the Korean Peninsula, one of the most militarized places on Earth. Even apart from a dozen or so nuclear devices that Pyongyang allegedly possesses, the DPRK boasts one-million strong conventional forces. South Korea's capital Seoul can be incinerated by the North Korean artillery heavily concentrated just across the so-called "Demilitarized Zone" separating the two rivaling Korean states. Add to that North Korea's ballistic missiles that can reach as far as Japan and possibly even the U.S. territory of Guam.
The United States and its northeast Asian allies, South Korea and Japan, have placed all kinds of penalties on the recalcitrant regime, but they failed to noticeably change Pyongyang's pugnacious behavior. Albeit virtually completely cut off from the international financial system, North Korea has more or less adapted to the sanctions regime and has even managed to eke out some economic growth over the recent years.
The China Syndrome
The resilience of the DPRK stems, to a large extent, from its economic links with China. Commerce with the Middle Kingdom accounts for as much as 90 percent of North Korea's total foreign trade. China has so far largely refrained from introducing economic sanctions against its neighbor, even though Beijing is visibly unhappy with the North's nuclear and missile shenanigans. China's caution in using its economic leverage to punish North Korea is mainly due to the concern that harsh sanctions could trigger the collapse of the DPRK, in which case the North will most likely be absorbed by the Republic of Korea, a U.S. ally. Choosing between the two evils -- a nuclear-armed and belligerent North Korea versus the entire Korean Peninsula coming under the strategic umbrella of the United States -- Beijing prefers the former. In other words, China will continue to tolerate the North Korean regime as long as Beijing sees Washington as the chief strategic opponent and source of threat. One should also keep in mind that, since 1961, China has maintained an alliance treaty with North Korea and shows no intention of renouncing it.
Russia is another major player whose collaboration is important in reining in North Korea. I am writing these lines from Russia's Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, which is just 180 miles from North Korea's nuclear weapons test site. Those who live here have little sympathy for the North Korean ruling dynasty. They can often see firsthand what life is like for many ordinary North Koreans. Just days before the nuclear blast, on Jan. 1, a North Korean construction worker in Vladivostok reportedly killed himself by self-immolation. According to the suicide note the man reportedly left, his family back in North Korea was starving while he could not provide enough money for them even toiling hard as a guest worker in Russia. It is well-known that the North Korean government takes at least 50 percent of what guest workers like this man earn in foreign countries, with the appropriated money being spent on supporting the comfortable lifestyles of the North Korean elite and, yes, developing nukes and missiles. Even by the not-so-demanding Russian human rights standards North Korea is quite repugnant. Yet Russia will hardly take any strong measures against the DPRK. Just like Beijing, Moscow is exasperated about Pyongyang's nuclear tests, but at the same time it does not want to see the North being annexed by the pro-American South. Moreover, Russia and North Korea currently share intense anti-Americanism, which makes them allies of sorts. And the DPRK was one of the few governments that openly supported Moscow on the Ukraine issue.
NKorea Is to China and Russia as Saudi Is to the U.S.
As an aside, Russia's and China's stances on North Korea are not so much different from how the United States treats Saudi Arabia -- a brutal regime sponsoring the ideology of violent jihadism, but one with which Washington needs to maintain friendship for realpolitik reasons.
With China and Russia unwilling to crank up pressure on North Korea, the United States and its allies have only one option left: engaging Pyongyang diplomatically in search of a mutually acceptable settlement. This means abandoning the policy of "strategic patience" toward the DPRK that the Obama administration has pursued since 2009. The policy centers on the insistence that Pyongyang commit to denuclearization as a precondition for direct talks. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that North Korea will never agree to completely give up its nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang sees the nukes as the ultimate guarantee of its security and will not exchange them for any amount of agreements and assurances from Washington. And the North Korean leaders have learned the sad lesson of Libya's Gaddafi, who abandoned a nuclear program in an agreement with the West only to meet his horrible end at the hands of Western-supported rebels soon afterwards.
North Korean leaders have learned the sad lesson of Libya's Gaddafi, who abandoned a nuclear program only to meet his horrible end at the hands of Western-supported rebels soon afterwards.
Rather than expecting Pyongyang to fully denuclearize, the realistic compromise should revolve around freezing further development of nukes and ballistic missiles, as well as North Korea's commitment not to proliferate them, in exchange for lifting sanctions and normalizing relations. Yes, this means recognizing the DPRK as a de facto nuclear power, but at least we will not have new tests that sooner or later will provide North Korean generals with a real H-bomb atop an intercontinental missile.
To reach a deal with North Korea, political will and diplomatic creativity are needed. And, of course, sustained personal involvement by the U.S. president will be essential -- the way Barack Obama acted when the Iran agreement was being negotiated. However, with the White House having its hands full dealing with the ongoing Middle East crisis, there are slim chances that North Korea will be accorded the top priority.
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