On the morning of February 12 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted its third nuclear explosion test. The latest nuclear blast violated the resolutions of the United Nations and broke the leadership’s promise of denuclearization in the Joint Statement issued at the end of the fourth round of the six-party talks in Beijing on September 19, 2005. The blast shook the international non-proliferation mechanism and damaged stability in East Asia, which is why it has been roundly condemned by the international community, including China.
Why did the DPRK choose this time to conduct a nuclear test? Is Pyongyang signaling that Resolution 2087 of the United Nations Security Council inked on January 22 means nothing? The blast took place the day before US President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address, and two weeks before Park Geun Hye, president-elect of the Republic of Korea, formally takes office This is a curious moment, to say the least. While both reasons may carry weight, this author believes they could not have been the main rationale behind the DPRK’s timing.
The fundamental reason is that the DPRK has made it a national strategy that it will become a “nuclear power,” and has written this into its Constitution. The test conducted in October 2006 was widely seen as unsuccessful, because only a small portion of the nuclear fission material was involved in the blast. The second nuclear explosion was estimated to be the equivalent of 6,000-7,000 ton TNT, still not enough to use as a battle-worthy nuclear weapon because, measuring about the size of a car, it is too big to deliver. The DPRK has to miniaturize its nuclear devices in order to deliver them with inter-continental ballistic missiles. Otherwise it will not have any real nuclear deterrence. And it can improve its nuclear technology only through continuous testing. That is why it had to run the third test this week. If it succeeds in developing its own nuclear warheads while continuing to improve its long-range ballistic missiles, maybe someday it will possess real nuclear deterrence and no longer have to worry about not being considered a nuclear power by the US. In the six-party talks, the DPRK has always insisted they should focus on nuclear arms reduction rather than the DPRK’s nuke development program. But of course the US has refused to see it as a rival in that light.
The DPRK nuclear capability issue has bothered the international community for 20 years, since the early 1990s. The reason why it is such a complex problem is a result of the hostile relations between the DPRK and the US over the past 60 years. The DPRK has been locked out of the international community for too long and that is one of the main reasons why its policies have become so outlandish. This author believes that two processes are needed to maintain stability in East Asia: one is to address the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; and the other to gradually let the DPRK into the international community, especially the East Asian regional community.
China maintains economic and trade ties with the DPRK and is constantly criticized by other countries for doing so. Some of them believe China is not putting enough pressure on the DPRK, or describe the Sino-DPRK trade ties as “a giant loophole in the UN sanctions against the DPRK,” saying Pyongyang will not fear UN sanctions as long as its trade with China continues. Some others have gone so far as to assert that China is “turning from part of the solution to part of the problem.” In fact, China faithfully follows the UN resolutions, which do not demand severing economic and trade ties with the DPRK. The Sino-DPRK economic and trade ties are normal relations between two neighboring countries. The goal of engagement is to let the DPRK see the benefit of developing economic and trade ties with other countries, and thereby gradually apply a positive influence on Pyongyang’s policies. Because of the bilateral treaty the two countries signed in 1961, it is a common misunderstanding that China is an “ally” or the “closest ally” of the DPRK’s.
The 1961 treaty was not a military alliance and there is still no alliance between China and the DPRK of the kind that the US maintains with Japan and the ROK, which includes deployment of US troops in the two East Asian countries, a sharing of intelligence, joint military exercises and regular bilateral meetings. The China and the DPRK share normal relations between two neighboring countries and nothing more. China is indeed obligated to help the DPRK according to the 1961 treaty, but it is a stakeholder in regional peace and a responsible member of the international community that takes its obligation in nuclear non-proliferation around the world seriously. This is why China is decidedly against further tests of nuclear devices by the DPRK and this standing of China’s warrants no misinterpretation.
The ultimate resolution to the Korean nuclear issue can be found only through the six-party talks, which have been locked in a stalemate since December 2008. The DPRK has repeatedly claimed that the six-party talks and the Beijing Joint Statement of September 19, 2005 no longer exist, but the international community does not agree. The six-party talks were created after years of effort to resolve the Korean nuclear issue through multilateral dialogue. The talks have achieved important results in the past, such as the Beijing Joint Statement of 2005 and the disabling of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. The present faltering should not be used as an excuse to write off past achievements. The UN Security Council is discussing a new resolution on the latest DPRK nuclear test that may contain some new sanctions against Pyongyang. However, sanctions are mainly a way for the international community to express their objections to nuclear proliferation, and thus cannot solve the problem for good. Dialogue and negotiation are the only way to resolve this issue, and the six-party talks are the best option in this regard at this moment. Progress can be made toward resolving this issue, as long as all parties concerned work for the goal together.
Tao Wenzhao is a researcher at the Institute of American Studies of the Chinese Academy Social Science.