October 10, 2006Foreign AffairsSecurity

Just what did North Korea blow up?

A bomb or a norm?

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Technical experts can miss the plot. They missed it this July when North Korea tested ballistic missiles. And they are missing it now, by indulging in a technical debate connecting kilotonnages and seismic signatures. Like in the case of the Taepodongs, perhaps even more so, the tests were successful for the simple fact that they were conducted at all. Why? Because having shown his ability to poop the (six) party, Kim Jong Il is likely to signal that he is ready for talks.

Kim’s quest to improve his negotiating power apart, Pyongyang’s nuclear tests bear upon two issues: the geopolitics of East Asia, and nuclear proliferation.

One of the best commentaries on the geopolitical element comes from Joe Katzman.

The truth is that North Korea is an irrelevant bit player in this whole drama. The real player here is China.

In other words, China won’t move unless its current strategy is seen to cost them, big-time.

The biggest cost, and the only one that will be real to them in any sense, is to have Kim Jong-Il’s nuclear detonation result in parallel nuclear proliferation among the nearby states China wishes to dominate/ bully. [Winds of Change]As for nuclear proliferation, it should be clear to anyone with their heads above the sand that the NPT regime is terminally ill. Not least because it is unable to adequately punish those who sucessfully violate the treaty (because attacking a state with nuclear weapons is a project no one wants to undertake). But what can come in its place?

One is the Scowcroft-Hagel initiative (via The Washington Realist), of which the Buffet-Turner-Nunn stockpile project is a variant. The problem with this approach is that it relies on prohibition to prevent individual states from producing nuclear fuel, and for this reason, suffers from some of the same failings as the NPT. It too will fail to adequately punish successful violators.

And then there is more radical model put forth by Amitai Etzioni. This calls for a self-appointed global authority with a strong enforcement mandate, but one that works outside the UN system._The Acorn’s_ proposal is somewhat along these lines and aims at rendering nuclear weapons irrelevant:

(If) existing nuclear powers jointly commit themselves to assured punitive second-strikes on any country that conducts a nuclear attack, then the basic incentive to develop nuclear weapons will be drastically weakened. An unacceptable penalty for their use will make nuclear weapons unusable and their development pointless.

It is fair to criticise these solutions for appearing unrealistic or infeasible. Yet they must be not only be judged by what they seek to achieve but also against what they seek to replace. The world will do itself a service if, as a result of the Kim Jong Il’s shenanigans, it discards failed dogmas and wishful thinking for a vitally important debate over containing the nuclear genie. India is in a unique position to play an important role in this debate—it should raise its game and look beyond the India-US nuclear deal.

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