News analysis

Bomb test revives question of how to contain North Korea

WASHINGTON • What do you do with a problem like North Korea?

United Nations Security Council resolutions clearly have little effect. And hopes that the North Korean government will collapse have proved a fantasy so far: If Mr Kim Jong Un is still in office on Jan 20 next year, the Kim family dynasty - grandfather, father and son - will have outlasted a dozen United States presidents.

But what the Obama administration has advertised as "strategic patience" - not overreacting to every North Korean test and demand for a payoff, while continuing pressure through sanctions until the North agrees to negotiate - may well be judged by administration critics as having paved the way for an arsenal the size of Pakistan's.

"Strategic patience has led to acquiescence," Mr Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars said on Wednesday. "What a contrast to the effort and creativity the administration put into the Iranian case."

The detonation that rocked North-east Asia on Wednesday morning and Pyongyang's claim to have set off its first hydrogen bomb - a boast there is good reason to treat with scepticism - are a reminder that the North Koreans have been on something of an atomic spending spree while US negotiators were cloistered in Vienna striking deals with the Iranians eager to have economic sanctions lifted.

It is not as if the administration has been doing nothing.

The State Department's coordinator for eliminating the North Korean nuclear programme, Mr Sydney Seiler, put together a package of proposals to see if the North would consider resuming negotiations.

It was intended to be a lot like the secret diplomacy that led to the two-year-long formal negotiations with Iran.

But it went nowhere, and South Korean officials have warned for a long time that the North's programme has hit what one called a "point of no return", a phrase the Israelis once used, wrongly, about Iran.

Still, even some former Obama administration officials say the administration's insistence that it would not talk to North Korea unless the North agreed that the ultimate outcome was complete nuclear disarmament was a prescription for diplomatic failure.

Mr Stephen Bosworth, President Barack Obama's first special envoy for North Korea, who died at the weekend, had argued in recent years that an administration willing to talk to Iran, Cuba and Myanmar had little to lose by dealing with the starving, isolated North Koreans.

"Whatever risks might be associated with new talks, they are less than those that come with doing nothing," Mr Bosworth wrote in The New York Times in 2013 with Mr Robert Gallucci, the North Korea negotiator in the Clinton administration.

"Pyongyang's nuclear stockpile will continue to expand, the North will continue to perfect its missile delivery systems, the danger of weapons-of-mass-destruction exports will grow and the threat to US allies will increase."

From Pyongyang's viewpoint, there is little incentive to give up the nuclear arsenal. The world is not exactly banging on North Korea's door to do business the way it is with Iran: The North has no oil, no striving middle class and little strategic value in the modern world.

Its greatest power is the threat it poses to one of the most prosperous corners of the globe.

But many consider it too dangerous to allow North Korea to fail.

The Chinese know that if it ceases to exist, the South Koreans and their US allies will be on the Chinese border.

The South Koreans know that if a conflict breaks out, the North will lose - but only after Seoul, just 56km or so from the North Korean border, is a smoking ruin.

So, the North Korean strategy is to up the ante and hope the world will acknowledge it as a nuclear weapons power that has to be dealt with.

H-bomb or no H-bomb, nuclear weapons are the country's insurance policy, and the test was a sign that it has no intention of cashing it in.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2016, with the headline 'Bomb test revives question of how to contain North Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe