North Korea Is a Nuclear Power

And it’s time for the West to get used to it.


Any hopes that the first year of the young North Korean dictator’s reign would signal a departure from his father Kim Jong Il’s hardline policies have been dashed. The boyish looking (and, indeed, seriously young — probably 29 years old) Kim Jong Un has so far proved himself to be a loyal son, following in his father’s footsteps, while at the same time delivering results his father could only dream about.

On Feb. 12, North Korea successfully conducted its third nuclear test — judging by initial reports, the device that exploded in a remote part of North Korea on Tuesday morning was both smaller and more powerful than those tested in 2006 and 2009. South Korea’s defense ministry estimated the yield of the recent test at 6 to 7 kilotons. That’s less than half the yield of the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 but likely larger than North Korea’s last nuclear test, which had an estimated yield of 2 to 6 kilotons — and much bigger than the 2006 test, which was largely regarded as a fizzle.

It is probably not a workable nuclear warhead yet, but North Korea is clearly getting close. In December, Pyongyang finally succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit — a feat it accomplished before its technologically superior archrival South Korea — which demonstrated that North Korean engineers are on their way to acquiring full-scale intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. There is still a lot of work to be done: engineers must develop a re-entry vehicle, perfect the missile guidance systems, and improve the general reliability of the devices. Nonetheless, the December launch plus this February test represents a very significant step in that direction.

Indeed, the North Korean nuclear program is advancing much faster than many have expected. North Korea might be a poor country with a grotesquely inefficient economic system, but it is one of only a handful of countries that possess nuclear weapons. Soon, it will likely create a working delivery system and have the ability, and possibly the will, to launch weapons directed at the United States.

These developments are not particularly surprising. Stalinist economies, of which North Korea is a proud example, perform far worse than their market counterparts. Yet they have a remarkable ability to concentrate all available resources on a small number of projects that the government deems vital, allowing them to punch well above their weight in areas designated as priorities. The Soviet Union, for example, developed its nuclear and ICBM programs in the late 1940s, at a time when it was hardly more prosperous than the North Korea of today. In short, centrally planned economies are hopeless when it comes to satisfying consumers’ needs, but they make good bombs.

The unexpectedly fast progress of North Korea’s engineers and scientists has once again demonstrated that if nothing is done, the world will see the dramatic and dangerous emergence of a nuclear-armed state — and one with uncertain intentions. China, the United States, and Japan have already condemned the test; Obama, on the eve of his State of the Union address, called it a "highly provocative act." U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated the obvious: the test was a "clear and grave violation" of Security Council resolutions. Indeed, international sanctions have failed in the most spectacular way. North Korea has been under a strict sanctions regime since 2006, but this has not prevented it from successfully developing both nuclear weapons and proto-ICBMs. One cannot even conclude that the gains have been achieved at the cost of sacrifice for common North Koreans — while North Korea remains poor, sanctions coincided with a period in which the country’s living standards might even have increased. The nuclear test has also demonstrated that China, the one country seen as able to rein in North Korea, has even less control over it than previously thought. Over the last month, Beijing had taken an unusually tough stance towards Pyongyang’s promise to conduct the third test, and yet the North went ahead anyway, ignoring Chinese pressure and thinly veiled threats.

It’s time to accept the obvious. In spite of all efforts to halt or slow down the process, North Korea will become a successfully nuclearized state. Once it achieves that goal, it will remain so for the foreseeable future. In order to prevent Pyongyang from further perfecting its nuclear and missile abilities the West must begin an earnest dialogue with the country’s leaders. The aim should be to reach an arms control agreement which implicitly accepts North Korea’s claim to being a nuclear power, while also limiting the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and setting out a clear and specific means of controlling this arsenal. In other words, the pipe dream of denuclearization should be discarded; arms control is the only attainable goal.

Such a dialogue should be entered into with no illusions: North Korea has a proven track record of cheating, and they will try hard to cheat again this time. Pyongyang will sign such an arms control agreement only if the outside world is prepared to pay them for the privilege in the form of aid and other assistance, as it’s done in past negotiations. It is not a good compromise, but it’s the best option remaining — the result of decades of canny foreign policy maneuvering by North Korea’s leaders.

Somewhere, Kim Jong Il is smiling.

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