Accessibility links

North Korea's Nuclear Fallout


North Korea's announcement this week that it successfully detonated a nuclear device is forcing the international community to reconsider its relations with the communist state and its Stalinist ruler -- Kim Jong Il.

North Korea's announcement Monday that it had set off a nuclear device sent political shock waves around the world. The test confirmed that North Korea is seeking to build an atomic arsenal. But to experts outside of North Korea, the test raised more questions than it answered.

Corey Hinderstein is with the international program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative here in Washington. "We don't really know the size of the device itself. I'm not talking about the yield, but the actual physical dimensions [of the device]. So we can't answer questions about, for example, whether they would be able to put a nuclear weapon on a missile or an airplane," says Hinderstein.

How Many Warheads?

Although Pyongyang expelled international inspectors from North Korea in 2003 when it withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, most experts say the reclusive state may now have enough plutonium to build about a dozen nuclear warheads. In addition to its own research, some experts say Pyongyang received help from the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program -- Abdul Qadeer Khan -- during the 1990s.

And according to Joseph Bermudez, Jr. -- an analyst with Jane's Information Group and one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea's military -- that could mean Kim Jong Il may have an even larger atomic arsenal.

"The A. Q. Kahn network was assisting North Korea in acquiring uranium enrichment technology, which would allow them to produce uranium warheads as opposed to plutonium warheads. Now if they've succeeded in enriching uranium, they could have an additional inventory of weapons that we know little about," says Bermudez.

Why North Korea chose this week to conduct a nuclear test is open to debate. Political scientist Robert Scalapino of the University of California at Berkeley says there are three contributing factors.

"Since the North has no positive bargaining chips, the use of threat is a logical step. And to become, or threaten to become, a nuclear power is a very potent threat. Another factor is a genuine fear of the United States [, having been labeled a member of an "axis of evil", along with Iran and Iraq, by the Bush administration.]," says Scalapino. "The third possibility is that they simply wanted to demonstrate to their own people their capacities and also that this reflects the dominant role of the military in policy making."

Regional Tensions

Some analysts add that the North Korean test reflects Pyongyang's displeasure with the choice of South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon to head the United Nations. But long-time Korea watcher and historian Bruce Cummings at the University of Chicago says the test was more likely intended to send a message to Japan.

"I would think the timing had to do with Shinzo Abe becoming Prime Minister of Japan. He is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, who was not only a prime minister, but also a Japanese imperialist in Manchuria in the 1930s when Kim Il Sung [, Kim Jong Il's father and the man who later became North Korea's first communist dictator,] and his friends were fighting the Japanese. The North Koreans take this very seriously," says Cummings. "And I think that Mr. Abe's talk about getting rid of the peace treaty and becoming a more significant military power is much more likely to have affected the North Korean timing of this test than Mr. Ban's accession to the Secretary-Generalship [of the United Nations]."

Many experts point out that North Korea's nuclear test alienated China -- perhaps Pyongyang's only friend in the region -- and South Korea, which until this week, had been seeking to improve relations between the North and South.

Robert Scalapino of the University of California at Berkeley agrees. "There is a very great risk to the North in this action. It has clearly alienated China more deeply than in previous actions. I think this creates genuine fissures between North Korea and China, and between the North and South. Whether Kim Jong Il considered these factors and decided to take the risk, North Korea has never been so isolated from the world as it is today," says Scalapino.

And today, there are concerns over the possibility of a conventional or even an atomic arms race in the region involving South Korea and Japan, in response to a nuclear North Korea. Then, there are fears that Pyongyang might transfer its nuclear weapons technology to other rogue states or terrorist groups.

International Criminal Ties

According to James Lilley, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea and China, North Korea is already involved in international criminal activity.

"They are engaged in all kinds of illegal activities with the Mafia, with the Triads in China, pushing drugs, counterfeit money, counterfeit cigarettes and narcotics. They could very easily get involved with terrorist groups," says Lilley. "And they would have to make a decision whether they are going to pump their nuclear capabilities into terrorist groups or, in return for money, oil and assistance, begin to give Iran, Venezuela and Sudan [, for example,] the ability to use their kinds of produced nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. This is a very great danger."

But other experts warn that it would not be in North Korea's interest to proliferate weapons of mass destruction. Among them is Bruce Cummings of the University of Chicago. "President Bush really drew a red line by saying the consequences would be grave if North Korea were to transfer its material. They run the risk of getting demolished by the U.S. And whatever they're doing, they're not suicidal. They're engaged in a survival strategy," says Cummings.

With more than a million men under arms, Pyongyang maintains the fifth largest military in the world. Adding the possibility of nuclear weapons to Kim Jong Il's suspected arsenal of chemical and biological weapons only heightens concerns for what, most analysts warn, could be a dangerous game of brinksmanship on the Korean peninsula.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

  • 16x9 Image

    Victor Morales

    Victor Morales is Senior Analyst for the Voice of America, where he has reported on U.S. and international affairs for more than two decades.  He is the former head of VOA’s Focus New Analysis Unit and VOA Learning English.  He also hosted the agency’s premier public affairs talk shows, Encounter and Press Conference, USA, and anchored the leading English news program, VOA News Now.

XS
SM
MD
LG