For more than 20 years, North Korea has been on a path to achieving the coupling of a nuclear weapon with an effective delivery system. The North’s ambitions have raised the question: is a regional arms race inevitable? Gregory Moore, associate professor of international relations at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China gathered leading experts in Asian and security studies to examine the issue. He spoke with VOA’s Jim Stevenson about the result: a new book titled North Korean Nuclear Operationality, which Moore edited and has written some of the chapters.
STEVENSON: We did have a sense of normalcy while Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was alive because he was very close to China. That seemed to be the real link between North Korea and China. Without him now, that has to make the Chinese nervous, especially with North Korea’s nuclear capabilities at this point and seemingly their interest in expanding their capabilities.
MOORE: You put that well. I think that uncle was sort of a pragmatist, was more of a moderate force in the government. With his “departure” that is a question now. It does not bode well for the region and it does not bode well for United States policy towards North Korea. Like you said, I think the Chinese are really wondering what is going to happen now. My guess would be this introduces a bit more tension. If you read my chapter on North Korea-China relations, I have argued that there has already been a lot of tension actually in the last 20 years, starting in 1994 exactly 20 years now, when North Korea really started going over the edge into that nuclear realm and forced a showdown with the United States, China was not happy about it then and they are not happy about it now.
STEVENSON: What is China’s main concern with a nuclear North Korea at this point?
MOORE: China has two main concerns. One is the nuclear issue, but also it is the issue of the collapse of North Korea which is related to this nuclear thing.
What China is worried about is North Korea pushing forward as a nuclear weapons state as an operation nuclear weapons capability is what the book’s premise is. The key issue is they are worried it is going to cause some sort of regional conflict, a division in the region with traditional cold war lines with China, North Korea and maybe Russia, and Japan, South Korea and the United States on the other side.
The other issue is they are very concerned with regime stability. I do not think they like the regime in Pyongyang, frankly. They see it as anachronistic and just completely out of date and living in the past. They are worried about a regime collapse where thousands and thousands of poor North Koreans would flow across the border into northeast China and destabilize China.
STEVENSON: Are sanctions working in keeping North Korea’s nuclear program at least at a slower pace?
MOORE: The sanctions probably have slowed things down. That would seem certain. Reprocessing spent fuel rods has been what North Korea has been using historically for the last 20 years. Evidence suggests that they may have mastered the enrichment process as well, and so I think they may have become fairly self-sufficient now, which makes them more invulnerable to sanctions than they might have been 20 years ago.
One line that I am really pushing in the book, why don’t we try something different. Let’s pretend we are Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1971 and we are dealing with China. There are a lot of parallels. China was very isolated, not quite a pariah state the way that North Korea had been. Nixon and Kissinger said let’s try something new. Let’s try talking to these people. Let’s try discussing normalization of relations and they did that. I just really wish the United States would consider something like that toward North Korea.