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All Headlines 11:29 May 28, 2009


How to Respond to North Korea's Second Nuclear Test

By Chun Sung-hoon, Senior Research Fellow, the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul

North Korea conducted its second nuclear test on the morning of May 25 in Punggye-ri, Kilju, North Hamgyong Province. It has been 2 years and 7 months since its first nuclear test on October 9, 2006. The U.S. Geological Survey reported an "artificial earthquake" with a magnitude of 4.7 on the Richter scale, while South Korea reported one with a magnitude of 4.5. An "artificial earthquake" differs from a natural earthquake because it is caused by a man-made explosion. No man-made explosion other than a nuclear bomb is capable of creating an earthquake on this scale.

Just after the nuclear test was conducted, the North's official Korean Central News Agency confirmed the developments. The news agency said, "The current nuclear test was safely conducted on a new higher level in terms of its explosive power and the technology of its control and the results of the test helped satisfactorily settle the scientific and technological problems arising in further increasing the power of nuclear weapons and steadily developing nuclear technology." It added, "The successful nuclear test is greatly inspiring the army and people of the DPRK (North Korea) to go all out in the 150-day campaign, intensifying the drive for effecting a new revolutionary surge to open the gate to a thriving nation."

Many fully expected North Korea to conduct a second nuclear test. Since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak came into office, North Korea has sharply criticized South Korea's policy toward the North and declared it would strengthen its nuclear deterrent for self-defense. Early this year, a spokesman for the General Staff of the (North) Korean People's Army announced North Korea could not give up its nuclear weapons due to nuclear threats from South Korea and U.S. forces in Northeast Asia.

North Korea became more determined to conduct a nuclear test after the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) condemned the regime for violating U.N. Resolution 1718 by launching a long-range missile and announced it would tighten sanctions on the isolated country. In response, North Korea said on April 14 that it would withdraw from the six-party talks, continue its rocket launches, and restart its nuclear facilities. "We have no choice but to further strengthen our nuclear deterrent to cope with additional military threats by hostile forces," he said. Then on April 29, North Korea denounced the UNSC's sanctions and declared it would test another nuclear weapon and additional ballistic missiles unless it receives an apology.

On May 5, North Korea criticized the Obama administration for being "no different" from the Bush administration and affirmed it would further strengthen its nuclear deterrent. The international community turned its attention to a possible second nuclear test by North Korea after Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen did not either refute or affirm any findings on North Korea's nuclear program during his speech at the Brookings Institute.

There was never a matter of whether or not North Korea would conduct a second nuclear test. The problem was finding out when. When North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, it hoped that the explosion would equal the same amount of force as 4 KT of TNT. However, it felt the nuclear test was only a partial success because the explosion only amounted to 1 KT of explosive force.

North Korea felt it was necessary to create a nuclear weapon capable of being both a nuclear deterrent and bargaining chip against the U.S. Thus, it was necessary for the regime to conduct a second or third test to achieve its goal. North Korea had already invested an immense amount of funds into developing this weapons system, so leaving it half-baked would be a waste of money. It would only be logical for North Korea to continue developing its nuclear weapons until it satisfied with the result.

The problem is figuring out why North Korea chose May 25 as the nuclear test date. The main reasons behind North Korea's decision are similar to the political and diplomatic factors that spurred the April 5 missile tests.

First, North Korea sought to unite its people domestically. In preparation for the establishment of a Kangsong Taeguk by 2012, North Korea wanted to use the nuclear test as a domestic tool to strengthen the legitimacy of Kim Jong-il's regime and smoothen the road for his succession. North Korea chose the long-range missile launch and nuclear test as its strategy to justify the start of Kim Jong-il's third government and his successor to the people. The regime believed that by announcing its successful nuclear test, it would open the doors to establishing a "great and prosperous nation" and unite its people and army under the revolutionary spirit.

Second, North Korea wanted to use the nuclear test as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the U.S. North Korea has openly criticized the Obama administration for not engaging with Pyongyang as the president promised to during his campaign. North Korea realized that the only way to have direct talks with the U.S. was to take provocative action. By conducting a second nuclear test, Pyongyang sought to bring the U.S. to the negotiation table.

Third, North Korea wanted to put pressure on South Korea. By conducting the nuclear test, Pyongyang wanted to show the Lee Myung-bak administration that his hardline policy toward the North had failed. In severing all communication lines with Seoul, North Korea aimed to escalate the level of tension and insecurity in South Korea and mobilize public opinion to pressure the Lee administration to change its policy toward the North. Ultimately, North Korea wanted to coerce South Korea into reformulating its policy to be more accommodating to the North's demands.

On the one hand, North Korea is reaching out to Seoul in condolence of Former President Roh Moo-hyun's tragic death. On the other hand, it is launching long-range missiles and conducting nuclear tests. The fact that North Korea decided to conduct a nuclear test in the midst of South Korea's mourning is more shocking than the nuclear test itself, especially because Former President Roh held a landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and pursued friendly engagement policies toward Pyongyang despite domestic criticism. North Korea's actions completely negate the slogan "By our nation alone" it insisted on all throughout Roh's administration.

South Korea should take the following approach to North Korea's nuclear test. First, the South Korean government should declare void the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula from December 31, 1991 because North Korea completely violated terms of the agreement. Moreover, even before North Korea signed the Joint Declaration, it deceived the international community by secretly developing nuclear weapons. The 2004 Defense Ministry's White Paper revealed that North Korea had already extracted between 10 to 14 kg of plutonium by the time it signed the agreement.

From the beginning, the Joint Declaration was fundamentally a useless agreement. Even after signing the Joint Declaration, North Korea continued to develop nuclear weapons, extract highly-enriched uranium, withdraw from the NPT, and violate its agreements with South Korea by conducting nuclear tests. If a signatory of a joint declaration intentionally violates the agreement, the declaration becomes null. Holding onto an agreement that the other party deliberately violates from the beginning brings down the nation's esteem as well as it's reputation.

Second, South Korea must reshape its negotiation strategy in a way that persuades North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. When the second North Korean nuclear crisis began in October 2002, South Korea attempted to peacefully resolve the nuclear problem through the six-party talks. This strategy would only work if North Korea comes to six-party talks willing to give up its nuclear weapons. At this point, however, North Korea does not want to rejoin the six-party talks and has shown through the second nuclear test that it has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons. The international community must stop pouring all of its energy into the six-party talks and come up with a wide array of cooperative measures to dismantle North Korea's nuclear weapons program. In the case that North Korea doesn't give up its nuclear weapons, South Korea must reformulate its policy to manage and deal with a nuclear North Korea.

Third, South Korea must prepare a contingency plan in case North Korea threatens or attacks South Korea with nuclear weapons. That doesn't mean South Korea should develop its own nuclear weapons. It means we should pursue Former President Roh Tae-woo's "nuclear dismantlement policy," which is line with our national interests. We must prevent North Korea from utilizing its nuclear weapons for political or military purposes. In order to do that, South Korea must enhance its military readiness by strengthening the U.S.-Korea alliance. From this context, it would be necessary to delay transfer of wartime operational control until South Korea is able to defend itself from North Korea's threats.

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