Skip to content

North Korean nuclear tests challenge US, China

Ear­lier this week, North Korea det­o­nated a nuclear weapon that it says brings the secluded nation a step closer to having the capa­bility to attack the United States with a nuclear mis­sile. We asked Suzanne Ogden, a pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and an expert on U.S.-Asian policy, to weigh in on how the test impacts for­eign policy and how nations like the U.S. and China can act to pre­vent fur­ther nuclear proliferation.

The White House called North Korea’s latest nuclear test, which came on the eve of the State of the Union, “highly provocative.” Beyond demonstrating its nuclear capabilities, what do you think North Korea hoped to accomplish with this test?

It seems clear that the North Korean gov­ern­ment wishes to minia­turize nuclear capacity so it could be put on the tip of a mis­sile. The pur­pose of such a nuclear-​​tipped mis­sile would be to hit the United States. So apart from the con­crete pur­pose of testing and devel­oping this capa­bility, the ques­tion is why the United States would be a target. The answer is North Koreans are hugely fright­ened of the United States and feel their best way of pro­tecting them­selves from an Amer­ican attack would be to estab­lish a deter­rent capability.

More likely, fur­ther pro­lif­er­a­tion would give North Korea the capa­bility to threaten one of our major allies in its neighborhood—namely Japan or South Korea—with a nuclear attack. Of course, to attack one of these allies, with whom the U.S. has mutual defense treaties (an attack on one of them is con­sid­ered an attack on the United States), would be far easier than launching an accu­rate mis­sile attack against the dis­tant United States; but they could still expect the U.S. to retal­iate on behalf of our ally.

China is among North Korea’s closest neighbors and one of the few countries that provides goods such as oil and food to the predominantly secluded nation. What role can China play in responding to the latest nuclear test and international attempts to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons program?

China is in a dif­fi­cult spot; what­ever it does, the con­se­quences could be bad for the country. First, if China does not give aid to North Korea, it is faced with the pos­si­bility of hun­dreds of thou­sands more North Korean refugees streaming over the Chi­nese border because of des­perate cir­cum­stances: star­va­tion, lack of fuel, a mal­func­tioning economy. There are already at least 300,000 to 500,000 North Koreans living in the border areas of China, causing var­ious prob­lems for the country.

Fur­ther, an unstable North Korea is a dan­gerous North Korea, owing to the pos­sible internal chal­lenge to the leadership’s legit­i­macy because of the suf­fering economy. Unstable coun­tries are far more likely to act irra­tionally than stable ones. If China encour­ages the North Koreans to relin­quish their nuclear pro­gram and to agree to accept aid and invest­ment from South Korea (and the United States), or if the U.S. attacks North Korea to stop its nuclear pro­gram, it risks the pos­si­bility of a Korean penin­sula united under South Korean lead­er­ship. This would mean that the United States would actu­ally, via its rela­tion­ship with South Korea, be sit­ting on China’s borders.

And third, if China does not oppose the North Korean devel­op­ment of nuclear weapons, it risks the pos­si­bility that both Japan and South Korea will then engage in a nuclear arms race. Given the Chi­nese government’s already tense rela­tion­ships with both coun­tries, a regional arms race is per­haps the worst pos­sible out­come for China.

What can the United States do to prevent North Korea and Iran, countries which have long resisted international pressure, from further developing nuclear programs?

Years ago, we were able to con­vince the North Koreans to stop their nuclear pro­gram with promises of aid, but for var­ious rea­sons the aid did not mate­ri­alize and the North Koreans felt betrayed. (The United States no doubt had rea­sons it thought legit­i­mate for cut­ting off aid.) Since then, they have become more sus­pi­cious of the U.S. than ever and basi­cally refuse to nego­tiate. The fact that the U.S. puts con­di­tions on nego­ti­a­tions is an obstacle (as it is for Iran) to resolving the issue.

The U.S. uni­lat­eral deci­sion to invade Iraq because it was allegedly devel­oping a nuclear pro­gram added to their inse­cu­rity. The ‘get­ting to yes’ strategy that worked to get the USSR to stop the arms race and agree to nuclear arms reduc­tion would cer­tainly help here: The U.S. needs to under­stand the fears and con­cerns behind its push for nuclear weapons by both North Korea and Iran. It is not in the national interest of Iran or North Korea to waste money on pro­grams they cannot afford, not to men­tion pro­grams that may not achieve the objec­tives they seek. But they do have rea­sons for pur­suing these pro­grams and we need to under­stand them and do what we can to address their con­cerns. If we do this, we are more likely to suc­cess­fully nego­tiate a ter­mi­na­tion of these programs.

– by Matt Collette

More Stories

Photo of the Capitol Building at night

High stakes for politics, SCOTUS in 2018

Photo of the crashed truck that was used in the October 31st attack in Manhattan.

Weaponizing Language: How the meaning of “allahu akbar” has been distorted

Northeastern logo

Why I love studying Spanish