October 9, 2006 | Family Security Matters

The Significance of the “Dear Leader” Testing His Nuke

The announcement from the official Korea Central News Agency was couched in the communist state's usual blend of solipsistic discourse, hyperbole, and surrealism:

The field of scientific research in the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] successfully conducted an underground nuclear test under secure conditions on October 9, Juche 95 [2006, the North Korean regime operates on its own calendar which dates 1915, the birth year of “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung as year 1] at a stirring time when all the people of the country are making a great leap forward in the building of a great, prosperous, powerful socialist nation. It has been confirmed that there was no such danger from radioactive emission in the course of the nuclear test, as it was carried out under scientific consideration and careful calculation. The nuclear test was conducted with indigenous wisdom and technology, 100 percent. It marks a historic event as it greatly encouraged and pleased the KPA [Korean People's Army] and people that have wished to have powerful self-reliant defense capability. It will contribute to defending the peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the area around it.

Nonetheless, the message was clear: the exclusive club of the world's declared nuclear powers had just been crashed by a dangerous and potentially highly unstable upstart.
 
The announcement has set off reverberations far in excess of the 4.2 magnitude tremor detected by the U.S. Geological Survey as the aftershock of the estimated 5 to 15 kiloton blast. The Chinese government, long Pyongyang's closet supporter, called it a “flagrant and brazen” violation of international opinion and said it “firmly opposes” North Korea's conduct. In televised remarks, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin declared that “Russia absolutely condemns North Korea's nuclear test.” President George W. Bush said that “the United States condemns this provocative act” and warned that “the transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable of the consequences of such action.”
 
While the North Korean test came in defiance of a statement by the president of the United Nations Security Council last Friday which warned that a nuclear test “would represent a clear threat to international peace and security,” the fact that Kim Jong-Il has set off a bomb is not itself significant. The dictator had long boasted that he had nuclear weapons and, consequently, was already treated by the international community as a de facto nuclear power. While diplomats fussed over the legal niceties of the status of North Korea's nuclear program—as if things had not already gone far beyond what could be considered easily recoverable—military commanders have long had to plan with the assumption that the line had been crossed.
 
What is significant is that now we know it for sure and our intelligence agencies are undoubtedly able to better gauge the quality and strength of his armaments—and thus the threat which North Korea actually poses to us. And, I would submit, most significantly, the explosion destroyed the strategic ambiguity that had been the Kim family dictatorship's principal stock of trade (alongside more tangible “goods” like weapons, drugs, and counterfeit U.S. dollars) for the past two decades, allowing the regime to extort billions in aid by threatening to cross the nuclear threshold while simultaneously allowing its appeasers abroad cover from the opprobrium of kowtowing to its flagrant violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: after all, they insisted, there was no definitive proof that the line had actually been crossed. (Rather ironically word of the apparently successful test comes on the very day when one of those apologists, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, whose pathetic record of excuse-making for North Korea was reviewed by my colleague Professor Michael I. Krauss and me in an op-ed just last Friday, was scheduled to be formally anointed by the Security Council as the next UN Secretary-General.)
 
From the Fourth of July barrage ordered up by “Dear Leader,” if not from his previous transfers of missile technology to the likes of Iran and Syria, most Americans learned he has an ambitious missile program. We now know that his scientists have apparently mastered the technology necessary to set off a nuclear explosion. Whether or not the North Koreans can actually manage to get such a device mounted on one of their missiles remains to be seen. Nonetheless Kim Jong-Il may have now played his hand and I, for one, am glad that the ambiguity is over.
 
The momentum now shifts to the international community as well as to our political leaders in the United States. Will the Security Council actually back up its promise that “should [North Korea] ignore calls of the international community, the Security Council will act consistent with its responsibility” with action to force the dismantling of the infrastructure that produced this threat? Will South Koreans, aspiring Secretary-General Ban included, now admit that their decade-long “sunshine policy” towards their mercurial neighbor to the North was little more than tribute that has bought them less, not more, security even as it caused needless tension with the one guarantor of their independence, the U.S.? Will China, without whose support the Kims, père et fils, would have long ago been consigned to the dustbin of history and which continues to be vital to Pyongyang's economic survival, now recognize it is not only a matter of international comity but of Beijing's self-interest not to have nuclear-armed rogue state on its door step? And here at home, despite the proximity of the crucial mid-term elections, will our political leaders transcend the partisan divide to take the steps necessary–including adequately funding work on a missile defense system over the longer term as well as more immediately closing ranks against the North Korean regime–to ensure the physical safety of our homeland and American strategic interests worldwide against what is now, more clearly than ever, a rogue regime?

J. Peter Pham, Ph.D., is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, and an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Issues:

North Korea