Statement on the North Korean Nuclear Test

From the South Korean socialist organisation, All Together

On October 9, North Korea announced that it had just conducted a nuclear test. The test came just six days after an official statement by the Foreign Ministry that NK would proceed with such a test. Experts had warned unequivocally that Pyongyang wasn’t simply bluffing this time. But the Bush administration, by ignoring such warnings and responding with the usual blackmail, practically asked for this to happen.
Leon Sigal, the author of Disarming Stranger, recently noted that “the only way to stop NK’s nuclear test would be for the US to negotiate seriously with NK ― a prospect that seems remote at the moment.”

The NK nuclear test, therefore, was a very predictable outcome. When the US continued to ignore NK by refusing dialogue and maintaining financial sanctions despite NK’s proclamation of nuclear statehood and test-firing of missiles, Pyongyang turned to nuclear testing in a last-ditch attempt to be taken seriously.

NK’s nuke test is the culmination of 5 years of the Bush administration’s policy towards NK. Up until the year 2002, NK had been freezing its plutonium reactor and reprocessing facility, in compliance with the Agreed Framework. It was only after October 2002, when Bush’s special envoy James Kelly went to Pyongyang to pick a fight, and only after November 2002, when the US stopped supplying NK with heavy oil (in violation of the Agreed Framework), that NK withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and restarted operation of its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon.

Even as the invasion of Iraq reinforced the perception that countries actually need weapons of mass destruction to deter US aggression, people like Richard Pearle publicly bragged how “we’ve already smashed the Iraqi Republican Guard. We can do the same with NK’s army.”

Moreover, the US listed NK among its potential nuclear strike targets, in the Nuclear Posture Review submitted to the Congress in December 2001. A threat of this kind against a non-nuclear state clearly violates the Nonproliferation Treaty.

By leveling such naked threats for years and years against a NK that had acquired plutonium reprocessing capability, Washington was in effect begging NK to develop nuclear weapons.

As a matter of fact, nuclear blackmail against NK has been ongoing for nearly half a century since 1957, when the US, in violation of the Armistice Agreement, brought nuclear bombs, missiles and mines into South Korea.

Although the Bush Administration, along with the South Korean, Japanese, and the Chinese authorities, is currently condemning NK’s nuclear test, the International Court of Justice said in a 1996 ruling that it could not “determine categorically whether the use of nuclear weapons by a state would be unlawful even under extreme circumstances in which the very survival of the state is at stake.” In a way, Bush’s NK policy served merely to strengthen NK’s missile and nuclear capabilities without being able to replace the regime.

UN sanctions are not the solution

The aftermath of NK’s test has become the subject of utmost interest. Pyongyang apparently wishes to gain de facto recognition as a nuclear power, or to gain a more potent leverage for negotiation. This is one possible outcome, but the immediate effect would be a tightening of sanctions through the UN.

The Bush Administration is obliged, by its own fierce rhetoric of the past, to show a tough response to NK’s test. And yet “there’s really nothing much the US can do in the event of a nuclear test by NK other than to issue condemnations through a new UN resolution”, as Professor Don Oberdorfer of Johns Hopkins pointed out.

Washington can’t take the military option for three reasons. First, the administration’s hands are tied to Iraq; it has to deal with Iran on top of it. As strong as the US military is, it can’t afford to pick another fight in another front. This must have been part of Pyongyang’s calculation. Even a limited, pin-point strike on NK nuclear facilities could easily escalate into a far wider conflict. General Gary Luck (ret.) who commanded US forces in Korea in 1994 estimated that if the US strikes NK nuclear facilities, a full-scale war would erupt in which “one million lives would be lost, including those of 80 to 100 thousand Americans; material costs would exceed $100Billion.” Second, the US must take into account how China and South Korea would react. The two might agree on UN sanctions (albeit not on their intensity), but they are not likely to support military action. For China, the prospect of having US forces right across the Chinese border is unacceptable; for South Korea, the scale of the destruction that would result from war with NK could be crippling beyond recovery.

According to a study released in 2005, a surgical strike on NK’s nuclear facility, at worst, can turn the entire Korean Peninsula into a radioactive desert for 10 years. At best, 80% of living organisms within a 10~15 kilometer radius of the strike will die in a couple of months, and the radioactive fallout will travel up to 1400km ― enough to cover Seoul.

If Washington presses NK too hard, South Korea could move closer to China, which in turn would hurt US hegemony in Northeast Asia. Preserving US hegemony in the region has been the preoccupation of US strategists like Brezinsky ever since the end of the Cold War. US is in the difficult position of having to play NK’s threat as a means of bolstering the US-Korea alliance, and at the same time avoid escalating the tension too much.

Third, US public opinion against war (which has now moved to the mainstream) is making it even more difficult for the administration to resort to military action.

In the given circumstances, the Bush administration is likely to apply pressure on NK through UN sanctions first, and then wait and see how things develop, trying to figure out how to respond. An administration that has been incapable of devising a unified policy on NK for the last 5 years is unlikely to have suddenly found one in the course of a few days.

The progressive forces in South Korea must oppose UN sanctions as well as military action by the US, for the sanctions themselves could further de-stabilize the situation. We shouldn’t lend our support to the South Korean government’s plan to support UN sanctions. Sanctions will only make ordinary North Koreans suffer. The only way to stop nuclear proliferation is to force the US to quit threatening NK.

A dangerous game

NK claims its nuclear test would “serve to defend peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula and the region surrounding it.” That is just false. Even if there’s no immediate military action from the US, NK’s test will serve to intensify tension in Northeast Asia.

NK’s test will encourage Japan to go nuclear, which will then encourage South Korea and Taiwan to follow suit. The result will be a Northeast Asian region living in constant fear of thermonuclear war.

From the point of view of NK state officials, nuclear arms may seem the only possible deterrent against Washington’s aggression. But from the perspective of the ordinary people of Northeast Asia, NK’s nuclear test is a dangerous gamble with their lives which has nothing to do with socialism. It could also have a negative impact on people’s movements in South Korea, Japan, etc.

The logic of MAD can ensure neither peace nor the survival of the regime. Humanity went near the brink of thermonuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Only 4 years ago, India and Pakistan came close to waging nuclear warfare over Kashmir. Threatening the workers and the people of other countries with nuclear weapons will only serve to whip up fear and thus damage their real potential to defeat imperialism.

October 9, 2006

All Together, South Korea