The Skeptics

North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Test: 12 Lessons from Kim Jong-un's Latest Challenge

It’s been at least a few days since North Korea did anything terribly provocative. So another disruptive event was long overdue. Pyongyang just announced its fifth nuclear test. And, as always, the “international community” was shocked and appalled.

Watching the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea offers a sense of endless déjà vu. The leaders occasionally change, but the family remains the same. So does the confrontational approach to the world. And the suffering of the North Korean people.

Yet policymakers in America are notoriously blind to the implications of their many failures. “To be clear, the United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state,” intoned President Barack Obama. But accept it or not, the North is a nuclear state. Some lessons should be learned from Pyongyang’s latest challenge.

1. North Korea isn’t going away. In today’s globalized, interconnected world, the North’s system of totalitarian, monarchical communism shouldn’t exist. Yet the regime persists, despite its failure to assure its people even sufficient food, let alone the many other products taken for granted almost universally by people around the globe. This most anachronistic and malignant of governments is busy developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, threatening to create a far more fearsome arsenal than deployed by many countries far larger and more prosperous.

2. Although the Kim dynasty is under some pressure, witness the large number of executions and high-profile defections, nothing yet suggests a dangerous fracturing of critical North Korean interests, most notably party and military. For the nomenklatura to turn on the system would risk being swept away in the resulting deluge. South Korea’s proximity would make it extraordinarily difficult for an independent North of any sort to survive if the Kim dynasty was toppled, in contrast to the Soviet Union, in which many of the old elites found prosperous new roles for themselves.

3. U.S. policy toward the DPRK has failed. Successive U.S. presidents have inveighed against a nuclear North Korea and insisted that the North would not be allowed to become a nuclear state. It is one. And its capabilities are growing. While it is true that engagement also might have failed to stop Pyongyang from going forward, isolation has achieved nothing of note, other than to punish the North Korean people for their dictators’ geopolitical ambitions.

4. There is no obvious answer to the “North Korea” problem. Almost certainly Pyongyang is not willing to negotiate away its nuclear arsenal. Sanctions haven’t worked and aren’t likely to do so without full Chinese support, which does not look forthcoming. Military action could trigger a bloody second Korean war. Which leaves Washington policymakers reduced to issuing statements after every new DPRK bad act.

5. China isn’t going to rescue the West from its discomfort. Naturally, Beijing deplored North Korea’s latest infraction, but the People’s Republic of China is angrier about South Korea’s planned deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system. Indeed, official Chinese media called on “all sides” to stop “adding oil to the flames.” At the moment the PRC fears the consequences of a North Korean collapse more than North Korean nuclear weapons. Unless Washington can address China’s concerns, Beijing is likely to tolerate a nuclear DPRK.

6. Allied expressions of shock and horror ring hollow. Surely no one is surprised by Pyongyang’s latest rejection of the dictates of “the international community.” Nor is there the slightest chance that Kim Jong-un & Co. will be impressed by the usual flood of advice, demands, and imprecations from Western capitals. To the contrary, the determination of the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and others to sound the alarm after every North Korean nuclear and missile test offers positive reinforcement for the DPRK to do the same again.

7. The U.S., South Korea, and Japan should begin considering life with the DPRK as a serious rather than incipient nuclear state. Little is gained by allied officials promising to ignore reality. Pyongyang may not yet have deliverable warheads and accurate missiles, but hoping it won’t develop them is not a strategy.

8. A nuclear DPRK does not mean war. No one wants the North to become a nuclear state, but it undoubtedly has multiple objectives for doing so, starting with defense against an alliance including the world’s greatest military power. And Washington’s willingness to attack smaller states and impose regime change whenever the Zeitgeist seemingly strikes America’s president makes it hard to criticize Pyongyang for developing a nuclear deterrent. Indeed, in Libya the U.S. didn’t even honor its agreement after that state gave up its nukes and missiles.