North Korea's Nuclear Ambitions

North Korea has announced it has tested a nuclear weapon.

North Korea has announced it has tested a nuclear weapon. The sensors seem to indicate something that would qualify as a nuclear test-although, crucially, we don't know whether the North Koreans simply have the ability to generate a nuclear explosion or whether they have an actual, deliverable, workable weapon-but the result is still the same. North Korea has ended the ambiguity.

The challenge is whether this development will galvanize the major powers and the international community to take action. The initial reaction seems positive. China and Japan-whose relationship has been acrimonious as of late-discovered a new-found sense of common purpose in denouncing the action. Beijing may want to reconsider whether it wants to continue to provide food and fuel to a regime that uses that assistance to free up resources to continue work on its nuclear program. The test may also shatter some of the illusions of the South Korean political elite about the efficacy of the "Sunshine policy." There is a strong possibility that, because of Pyongyang's reputation for smuggling, China and even Russia may be more inclined to take part in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), or at least work more closely to be able to quarantine North Korea.

The North Korean test also demonstrates the weakness of the current non-proliferation regime. Pyongyang was a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and have a decade of apparent supervision of its nuclear facilities, yet, with these supposed safeguards, was still able to construct a working nuclear explosive device. Is this really the framework we expect to be able to deal with challenges like Iran?

Right now I think that the Scowcroft Initiative-which the general proposed in the spring 2006 issue of The National Interest-is looking very good as an alternative-a new international regime for control of the fuel cycle to guarantee access to energy for all but preclude the development of weapons by anyone. Perhaps combined with an earlier proposal by Amitai Etzioni in the pages of the magazine-the need for a Global Security Agency (comprised of the leading military powers of the world) to be in a position to implement de-nuclearization-and we could find a way out of this crisis.

Of course, for all of this to work, it requires the United States to want to work multilaterally and for the other major powers to be serious about their claims that North Korea cannot be allowed to possess a nuclear weapons capability.

Last Thursday, in my blog The Washington Realist (, I wrote:

"A test also forces the other countries that comprise the Six-Power talks to decide whether or not getting North Korea to de-nuclearize is truly a priority for them or not.

"The argument I often hear is that a test … crosses some sort of pre-agreed line beyond which there can be no de-nuclearization. I don't see what the fuss is about over the test. The real question is dismantling or destroying the infrastructure that is in place; the test has little to do with whether that infrastructure remains functional or not."

That assessment remains valid the day after as it did the day before. We are about to see whether or not the world is prepared to treat North Korea as a different exception than India or Pakistan.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.

Nuclear Proliferation