Nuclear Groundhog Day in North Korea

[Welcome to the readers coming in from the Wall Street Journal, Gateway Pundit, Ed Driscoll, Patterico, and Little Green Footballs, and thanks to the authors of those sites for linking.]

Well, all I can say is, thank God Christopher Hill’s ingenious diplomacy disarmed North Korea in time:

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea successfully conducted one more underground nuclear test on May 25 as part of the measures to bolster up its nuclear deterrent for self-defence in every way as requested by its scientists and technicians.

“The current nuclear test was safely conducted on a new higher level in terms of its explosive power and 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.

“The successful nuclear test is greatly inspiring the army and people of the DPRK all out in the 150-day campaign, intensifying the drive for effecting a new revolutionary surge to open the gate to a thriving nation. “The test will contribute to defending the sovereignty of the country and the nation and socialism and ensuring peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and the region around it with the might of (the military first policy) Songun.” [KCNA, via Reuters and the Washington Post]

Let me begin by offering my congratulations to Allison Kilkenny for beclowning herself as conspicuously as a person without subject matter expertise, perceptible writing skills, or any other apparent qualifications to merit publication possibly could (and also, to John Bolton for being spot-on).  Like all apologists for North Korea, Allison is learning what a thankless task it can be to have a client who humiliates you endlessly.

The Wall Street Journal adds that the North Koreans “also launched three short-range missiles,” one of them from nearby Cape Musudan, the site of North Korea’s long-range missile launch.

A Technical Success

Seismic reports from the U.S. Geological Survey tell us that the blast created a magnitude 4.7 earthquake at grid coordinates matching the Mount Mohyang test site, the same place where North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006, and directly adjacent to the enormous gulag of Camp 16.

By contrast, North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test measured 4.2 on the Richter Scale (South Korean measurements were closer to 3.6). Because the Richter scale is logarithmic, each whole number increase in the Richter number equals a ten-fold increase in measured wave amplitude of a tremor, or a release of 31 times as much energy.  This means that the latest test would have had a significantly larger yield than the 2006 test, and would have a magnitude that approaches those of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.  [Update:   The New York Times agrees.] Technologically speaking, and assuming that these numbers hold up, the North Koreans are correct to call this test successful.  And if you believe that the North Koreans’ goals are largely technical — that what they “really” want is The Bomb — that’s the end of the story.

A Challenge to the Obama Administration

But of course, the North Koreans can’t fail to appreciate the important financial and diplomatic gains they wrested from the Bush Administration after their last nuclear test.  The Obama Administration, having failed to react effectively to North Korea’s April missile test, had signaled a strategy of “malign neglect” in the absence of any idea how to deter and punish North Korea’s provocations:

Clinton said the United States had no interest in offering North Korea carrots to return to the talks. “We have to be patient,” Clinton said. “We intend to have an open door for a return to the six-party talks,” she added, referring to talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States on ending North Korea’s atomic programs. “The ball is in the North Korean court. We are not concerned about chasing after North Korea and offering concessions to North Korea.” [Reuters, Jon Herskovitz]

However Clinton said North Korea should not expect better terms in the negotiations. “The ball is in the North Korean court,” she said. “And we are not concerned about chasing after North Korea, about offering concessions to North Korea. They know what their obligations are. They know what the process is, and we are all urging that they return and begin once again to act with us to move the agenda forward.” [Chosun Ilbo, May 15, 2009]

I warned whoever was reading this site that it wouldn’t work:  North Korea has a talent for not being ignored.  The administration is now obliged to the United Nations for more tough-looking sanctions that we already know China will undermine:

The United Nations Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting on Monday afternoon New York time to discuss the North’s actions.  [....]

In an indication of the pressures Beijing can expect, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said during a visit to Shanghai that the test is “cause for great alarm.”

“These reported tests underscore the message our congressional delegation planned to deliver to top Chinese government leaders during our meetings later this week: The Chinese must use their influence to help bring North Korea to the table for the six party talks,” Ms. Pelosi said, referring to the diplomatic process in which the U.S., China and three other countries have tried since 2003 to persuade the North to halt the weapons pursuit.  [Wall Street Journal, Evan Ramstad and Ian Johnson]

And with the characteristic efficiency of the apathetic, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement today is “virtually identical” to the one it issued in 2006.  One should not expect that China’s reaction will be any more helpful.

There will be a castigations from the United Nations, naturally. This will be a necessary display for domestic political consumption, but don’t mistake that for the administration’s real policy, which will now have to shift again.  The question is whether the Obama Administration will lose its nerve and appease as the Bush Administration did … and just look where that got us.

Speaking later in the Rose Garden of the White House, Mr. Obama called the tests “a blunt violation of international law” and said that Pyongyang has reneged on its commitment to abandon its nuclear ambitions, the Associated Press reported. The president said the U.S. would work with its allies to “stand up to” Pyongyang.  [Wall Street Journal, Evan Ramstad and Ian Johnson]

To its credit, the new administration shows signs of realizing that giving North Korea concessions without demanding strict conditions is a failed strategy.  But they show no signs of understanding that there is another way, it’s been proven to work, and barring a coup d’etat in Pyongyang or the rise of a rural insurgency, it’s our only hope to negotiate with North Korea from strength.

[Update:   Uh oh, here come the global criticism   and world outrage again.]

Groundhog Day

Finally, I’m struck by how similar the events today are to those of 2002, after which the Bush Administration was roundly criticized by North Korea’s apologists (by then, relocated in think tanks) for walking away from Agreed Framework I.  In fact, Bush did not repudiate the agreement; he rightly called North Korea for breaking the agreement by pursuing an undeclared uranium enrichment program and suspended shipments of fuel oil.  Hillary Clinton has done precisely the same thing this year in the face of North Korea’s provocations and its violations of Agreed Framework II.  But because most of North Korea’s apologists also support the current Administration, expect a hypocritical absence of the same kind of criticism that was directed at Bush several years ago.

All of this discussion really leads to a question I’m going to answer in a longer posting at The New Ledger — why and how we should hold China accountable for making North Korea the threat it has become.

Update:   As promised.

14 comments

  1. usinkorea says:

    I have no confidence in my own read on what this means. There are a few too many variables that could be at play. Especially the fact that we have a new administration in Washington – which would invite a test – and that the new president comes from the side of politics that is considered “softer” than the “cowboy” conservatives.

    Is it just a test for Obama? Maybe. But, we know the North has lost a good bit of the aid it was getting from South Korea. The US also hasn’t been giving as much as we began when Hill was trying to buy an agreement with verifiable implementation.

    I felt confident the last nuclear test and ICBM test before that were a sign of desperation. I still think that is the most likely answer to why they did it. Pyongyang wanted to push Bush into accepting 1-on-1 talks but if that failed they could return to the table having saved face and put the US side on the defensive – in a better frame of mind to pay the North off instead of stubbornly holding out as Bush did for most of his tenure.

    I don’t know about today…

    I don’t remember hearing as much talk about a possible famine as we did a couple of years ago. — but, NK just shut down Kaesong. Does that mean they are hurting more because they need the resources they get from allowing it to operate? or, does it mean the North feels comfortable enough about its survival that it can shut it down…?

    It’s all a fog right now for me…

    The US response will be a fog too. I have no reason to believe Obama is the type of president who’ll move to play hardball with Pyongyang. Nuke test or no nuke test.

    But I don’t know if he’ll react to these tests the way Bush did — who flipflopped. I’d lean more toward the idea that Obama will just let things slide in East Asia —- because he’s got too many big things on his plate right now — and he’ll want to stick to his drive on shaping a new, big domestic agenda. (Not to mention the fact the economy is in a shambles and needs great attention).

    So, whether or not they really have a strategy of neglect, I think that is right now the most likely result we will see in the next couple of years when it comes to NK.

    If NK is trying to force Obama to agree to cough up larger amounts of regular regime-stabilizing support, it is probably going to have to try harder…

  2. Jodi says:

    Here’s what I think: I think the timing can’t be ignored here.

    I think it is no coincidence this happened in the aftermath of Roh’s death. I think North Korea strategically wanted to steal away the spotlight from the tragedy and successfully did so. You could argue that in South Korea at least, no one is batting an eye in response what is happening North of the DMZ. You could argue that Roh’s death indeed, still dominates national news or at least the common person’s current concerns in South Korea.

    But it’s the international community North Korea really wants to “impress.” And I find it quite clever North Korea managed to make the headlines today in the U.S. alongside news stories highlighting Memorial Weekend events/stories. Of course this can’t be a coincidence, either.

  3. Richardson says:

    This test was probably planned before the April TD-2 launch. Remember that North Korea threatened such acts if the UN said anything at all about the TD-2 test, an absurd demand it used to justify future actions. I doubt it had anything to do with wanting to steal the stoplight of a failure of a president who committed suicide. That it was a U.S. holiday probably isn’t a coincidence and is more likely. The 2006 TD-2 was over Independence Day, while the nuke test was Columbus Day. Doesn’t do much except annoy those who have to come in on a holiday. North Korea also has internal audiences to play to.

  4. SYL says:

    In addition to annoying White House etc. officials deterred from enjoying the holiday, such acts do put tremendous pressure on the US president to respond immediately, if only rhetorically, in the midst of all other remarks and functions he is obliged to honor. That sends a stronger message than testing a nuke, say, the day after Christmas.

    The nuke test sequel was certainly planned before the TD-2 launch on April 5–I would bet even before Obama took office. But it’s also no coincidence that it came, when it did, in the wake of Roh’s suicide and KJI’s words of condolences just hours before. NK has a history of testing the South Korean waters whenever the imperialist zone is caught up in public commotion to ascertain how much pro- and anti-North Korean sentiment there is in the South. Remember the naval skirmish in June 2002 during the World Cup Red Devil euphoria and the Mt. Kumgang murder last July July some 70 days into the mad cow row. Furtherm the New York Phil was played in Pyongyang the day after LMB’s inauguration in February 2008. That certainly stole the spotlight. The North Koreans like to rub it in and show the lackeys who’s the boss.

  5. Richardson, I understand that rocket fuel is highly corrosive and can’t sit in the motor’s tanks for long. Is there some similar reason why a nuke test can’t be delayed?

  6. Greg says:

    China won’t do anything except veto all UN resolutions on North Korea.

  7. usinkorea says:

    On US and world reaction, to me, the secret Syrian nuclear reactor was a much bigger deal and provocation than the nuke test. Our intelligence has been guessing NK had a couple of nukes since the mid-1990s. Testing it to make sure of its value is important and big provocation, but in terms of security – I’d think the ICBM tests a slightly more important (to the US) —- but —- proliferation to other regimes is the biggest threat….

    ….I thought people used to consider that the ultimate red-line that couldn’t be crossed.

    But, NK helps speed up the potential development of nukes to one of the biggest threats (Syria) to one of our key allies (Israel) — not to mention it bordering Iraq — and the US and world community hardly yawns…

    …the world is making less sense than usual…

    I certainly don’t have any hope reasonably effective action will be taken after this 2nd nuke test.

  8. Andreas Kolb says:

    “We have to be patient,” Clinton said.

    This actually scared me. Iran is working on the bomb. We have to be patient. North Korea has the bomb, apparently. We have to be patient. For how long? Waiting for what? That Obama will suddenly “enlighten” them with “hope and change”? There are two countries that spit on everything the free world stands for and we have to be patient. For how long? Until mushroom clouds grow in New York, Tel Aviv, Seoul and Tokyo?

    Call me a pessimist, but what I expect to happen is more appeasement (plus endless banter in the totally castrated “Security Council” and useless “Obamaism”.) And we wll know how well appeasement worked with this little corporal from Austria who went by the name of Adolf Hitler.

    I think North Korea is doing the same as Iran: they’re testing Obama, trying to see how far they can do. And right now it seems they can do whatever they want. With the useless UN watching helplessly (as usual).

  9. Richardson says:

    Joshua; The missile propellant can be in the tanks for weeks, but the starter fuel (very small amount) goes in right before showtime. A nuke test could be prepared months or even years in advance (e.g., nukes in silos).

  10. usinkorea says:

    On the North’s varied motives and past examples — I’m not sure the shooting of the South Korean tourist was a planned provocation like the 2002 West Sea Battle. (I’d say the odds of the tourist shooting being staged is 25% or lower and the West Sea Battle in definitely 100%)

    I’ve also had doubts about whether the two American reporters were taken as part of a plan. I’ve been sitting on the fence there — 50/50%. This 2nd nuke test, however, pushes it up to maybe 75% that it was planned in part to add chips the North could play after it carried out a test.

  11. andrei s says:

    The NK will attack ROK sooner or later, starting a conventional war, keeping the nukes as the weapon of last resort if something goes wrong, that depends on how much KJI and his heirs are going to wait for the prey to be in the most affordable position.
    Next China will use NK as a tool for pressure US in case they attack Taiwan. The nuke and arms treaty will be highly ineffective because China will close the eye on NK shipments.
    There is a simple bargain there: NK will help China if war starts in the Formosa strait, thus lowering the pressure and keeping American forces pinned in the Korean peninsula and China will help NK if ROK forces will push back DPRK Army.
    Now all the pieces are in place and NK has to find a good escuse to attack and the right moment. Maybe when the global economic crisis will touch its peak? Maybe later? Frankly speaking 25,000 yankees are not so frightening – especially with this low enthusiasm for war after Iraq and Afganistan.
    Finally, will see One(free)Korea.

  12. Richardson says:

    One thing Perry said in his ’99 report that still rings true is that there is no military calculus that gives North Korea a victory; in short, North Korea is not going to attack South Korea any time soon.

  13. JH says:

    Agreed, I think it’s common knowledge that North Korea would effectively commit suicide by entering into armed conflict.

  14. usinkorea says:

    no military calculus that gives North Korea a victory

    I don’t think there will be an attack by the North until perhaps it begins to collapse, but I think people forget that we live in a world where the irrational has influence and can make things happen.

    In fact, there is no real rational reason or series of reasons why the North is as it is. The regime might have elaborate descriptions explaining itself, but it won’t hold.

    So, I don’t have as much faith as is generally given to the idea that an attack by the North is pretty much impossible because the North knows it would be suicide. I think that ultimately depends on how desperate the regime feels during a time of increased crisis.

    Also, the quote from Perry predicates the use of force on the idea that the ultimate goal used to calculate the decision to attack or not is – victory. That – if the North knows it can’t achieve victory, it will refrain from attacking.

    That didn’t hold true for Japan at the start of WWII: They tried to stage a first attack to destroy the Pacific fleet to such an extent it would cripple the US options of military response for a couple of years — during which time, Japan could advance into Southeast Asia and the Pacific and solidify its position to the point it would be too costly for the US to roll them back all the way — and eventually the US would cut a peace deal.

    But Japan didn’t destroy the aircraft carriers + it misunderstood the psychological impact on American society the sneak attack would have.

    Also, they didn’t know that one of the first things Churchill and Roosevelt would agree to and announce in public was a policy of “unconditional surrender.” If I remember correctly, that was somewhat of an unusual stipulation about warfare at the time: that there would be no “negotiated settlement” short of total surrender….

    …So, is there no way NK would ever attack or wage a (limited) engagement against South Korea with no thought of trying to achieve total victory? Or, it might get it into its twisted head that it can strike at the South and US forces on the DMZ with the goal being to gain a negotiated settlement that basically returns to the status quo on the land but with gains in aid to hopefully pay the North off not to stage such limited attacks again?

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