North Korea to China: Two more nuclear tests this year

If you liked the way the new year started in North Korea, you’re gonna love 2013.  Reuters reports this morning that Pyongyang has told China it will conduct one or even two more nuclear tests this year and another long-range missile mission.  They want to break up the six-nation talks and force the US to negotiate directly with the Kim regime:

North Korea has told its key ally, China, that it is prepared to stage one or even two more nuclear tests this year in an effort to force the United States into diplomatic talks with Pyongyang, said a source with direct knowledge of the message.

Further tests could also be accompanied this year by another rocket launch, said the source who has direct access to the top levels of government in both Beijing and Pyongyang.

The isolated regime conducted its third nuclear test on Tuesday, drawing global condemnation and a stern warning from the United States that it was a threat and a provocation.

“It’s all ready. A fourth and fifth nuclear test and a rocket launch could be conducted soon, possibly this year,” the source said, adding that the fourth nuclear test would be much larger than the third at an equivalent of 10 kilotons of TNT.

The tests will be undertaken, the source said, unless Washington holds talks with North Korea and abandons its policy of what Pyongyang sees as attempts at regime change.

Were we pursuing a policy of regime change?  We’d probably like that, but that sounds more like paranoia.  During the Bush administration, that seemed much more the case, as the direction of US policy recognized that North Korea had already gone nuclear, and that the issue was now the leaders with their fingers on the button. Remember Bush’s “axis of evil” remark?  The Obama administration has taken a much softer tone while trying to keep the six-nation talks in process, and not having any more luck at that than Bush.

Ted Galen Carpenter argues at the Washington Post that we should stop trying to undo the nuclearization of North Korea and learn to live with it:

For years, we’ve tried carrots and, more often, sticks with the Hermit Kingdom, to little avail. Even the 1994 agreement between Washington and Pyongyang that temporarily froze Kim Jong Il’s plutonium program did not really constrain the regime — it merely shifted to a parallel uranium-enrichment program. And North Korea has conducted two previous nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009.

It’s time for a new approach. After all, the only thing more dangerous than a North Korea with nuclear weapons is a nuclear-armed North Korea with which the United States has no productive relationship. The nation might become a supermarket for nuclear technology, weapons components and even fully assembled nuclear weapons, available to any purchaser. Washington and its allies need to accept that it may be too dangerous to try to isolate a nuclear power instead of trying to establish a constructive relationship.

In a scenario with no good options, we may have to learn to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea. …

Hawks will cry, “Appeasement!” But we can’t lose perspective. North Korea’s embryonic nuclear arsenal and slowly improving missile capabilities cannot directly menace the American homeland. The United States has thousands of sophisticated nuclear warheads that are generations ahead of anything the North can muster. Pyongyang’s leaders would have to be suicidal to assault the United States. Although members of North Korea’s elite are brutal and ruthless, they aren’t that crazy. What strategists call “primary deterrence,” or preventing an attack on U.S. shores, remains as effective and credible as ever.

In other words, we can still go MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), the containment strategy that prevailed in the Cold War.  While that isn’t really an option with Iran, which is pursuing its nuclear weapons with non-rational goals in mind, it might be with Pyongyang.  However, Carpenter is wrong to assume that North Korea can’t threaten the US just because we can destroy them in return, and we may not really be their target.  Japan has more to fear from a nuclear North Korea than the US, and I doubt they’re as sanguine about MAD as Carpenter seems to be.

The question will be whether simply normalizing relations with Pyongyang through direct negotiations will solve the problem, as Carpenter argues.  I’d guess that North Korea will not be satisfied until the US packs up and leaves South Korea to defend itself, and perhaps Japan as well.  That’s why it would be a very bad idea to end the six-nation-talks approach while the Kim regime rattles its sabers, and keep the pressure where it belongs.  After all, if they are as rational as Carpenter assumes, we have nothing to fear from taking that approach.