North Korean Nuke Test: What Good Is Diplomacy?

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KNS / AFP / Getty Images

Kim Jong Il, center, inspects a mine in North Korea's South Hamgyong province in an undated handout picture released by the state Korean Central News Agency on May 21, 2009

Even since before the mystifying Kim Jong Il took power in 1995, the outside world has tried mightily to figure out how the North Korean regime works. Spy satellites are trained on suspected nuclear sites 24 hours a day. The U.S.'s "Big Ear" — the National Security Agency — eavesdrops on communications. Defectors from the North have been thoroughly scrubbed and spies have been recruited. During the presidency of George W. Bush, diplomats from the U.S. and four other countries talked, on and off, for years with their counterparts from Pyongyang.

For all that, days like today make it clear just how much the outside world doesn't know — and how dangerously unpredictable North Korea can be. On Monday morning, Pyongyang tested a nuclear bomb for the second time in three years. "We just didn't see this coming," a usually very well-informed intelligence source in east Asia told TIME today. The magnitude of the explosion in North Hamgyong Province, in the northeastern part of the country, near the Chinese and Russian borders, was four times greater than that of the last test, in the autumn of 2006, analysts in Seoul said. North Korea's KCNA news agency said the blast showed that "both the explosive power and technical control have increased," and the intelligence source didn't disagree with that assessment. The test came less than two months after North Korea launched a long-range missile into the Pacific on the same day that U.S. President Barack Obama was making a lofty speech in Prague calling on the world to move toward eliminating all nuclear weapons. Monday's test might be considered Part 2 of Pyongyang's dismissive response to that idea. (See pictures of Obama in Europe.)

The international community struck the usual poses that follow North Korea's periodic outrages. Obama said in a statement that the test would "serve to deepen North Korea's isolation." South Korea called for an "emergency meeting" of the United Nations Security Council (a wish that was granted, with a meeting scheduled for later on Monday). The Japanese government said it would "not tolerate" such actions. Russia expressed its "concern." Even China, North Korea's alleged ally, said it was "firmly opposed" to the test.

None of that offered much hope for change. North Korea is already the world's most isolated country. The only thing that would meaningfully "deepen" that isolation would be for China to shut down trade entirely across its border — something Beijing has never given any indication that it's prepared to do. The idea that Kim Jong Il's regime even cares if the nation's isolation "deepens" is dubious at best. As for the U.N., it met in emergency session just after the long-range missile launch in April and gently tightened sanctions that were already having no demonstrable effect on North Korea's behavior on key security issues. Will another "emergency session" really produce painful sanctions that could conceivably make a difference? That, after all, is presumably what Tokyo has in mind when it talks about not tolerating the North's behavior. (See pictures of North Koreans going to the polls.)

For a hint as to how effective the U.N. might be, talk to the Russians. Moscow is "concerned" — not outraged — by today's test. Don't expect much, in other words, from the Security Council, even if the test is determined to be as direct a violation as possible of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, which calls on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. The Chinese, like Obama, desperately want the North Koreans to return to the negotiating table in Beijing, where the so-called six-party talks were held during the Bush years. But Beijing may be coming to the reluctant conclusion, if it hasn't already, that North Korea means what it says: it intends to be a state armed with nuclear weapons, whether the rest of the world likes it or not. (See pictures of Kim Jong Il.)

The fundamental notion underlying U.S. diplomacy with Pyongyang, going back to Bill Clinton's first term as President, is that North Korea can be bribed. In this view, everything that Kim's regime says or does is meant simply to up the ante in negotiations and get the U.S. and its negotiating partners to sweeten their offerings. This conviction is widely shared among career diplomats in Seoul as well, and they joined their State Department colleagues in outrage when the Bush Administration at first took a confrontational approach with the DPRK. Bush's hard-line stance, the critics believe, prompted Pyongyang to kick-start nuclear-weapon production. Intelligence analysts in Washington and Seoul believe that North Korea increased its total arsenal from one or two nukes to seven or eight during Bush's time in office.

Bush eventually overhauled his approach to the North entirely, and even after the launch of the long-range missile early last month, the Obama Administration was still dangling the possibility of eventual direct talks with the North — if Kim would first return to the multilateral six-party format in Beijing. On Korea, Obama heads the most openly dovish Administration in Washington since Jimmy Carter's. Yet the North's rhetoric since he was inaugurated has been vitriolic. It says it believes the U.S.'s "hostile policy toward the DPRK remains unchanged." (Read "North Korea Launch Poses Problem for Obama.")

If it remains "unchanged," it's because the North hasn't given Obama even the slimmest reed on which to hang an alteration in policy. Is it possible that today's nuclear test will finally convince diplomats that the North Korea they see is the one they get; that perhaps, on the question of nukes, it simply can't be bribed? North Korean leaders have long cited the year 2012 as being particularly significant for their country. It will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the nation's founder and Kim Jong Il's father and predecessor. Jong Il, now 67 and ailing after suffering a stroke last summer, is thought to be arranging a succession now; foreign intelligence analysts believe he wants to pass power onto to his youngest son, 26-year-old Kim Jong Un, with Kim's trusted brother-in-law guiding the young man from behind. (See possibly doctored photos of Kim Jong Il.)

In this febrile environment, the military is said to have stepped up its influence in Pyongyang. A group of North Korean exiles today circulated a report saying that after the missile launch last month, Kim visited a group of generals and assured them that by 2012 the North will achieve the status of a "nuclear state," one with the ability to fit a warhead on a long-range missile.

Reports from defector groups in Seoul are, to be sure, not always reliable. But the assumption that North Korea is ultimately willing to negotiate away its nuclear program will come under new scrutiny after today's test. Baek Seung-joo, director of the Security Strategy Research Center at the Korea Institute of Defense Analysis, acknowledges that North Korea appears to have advanced its nuclear program and that its "ultimate goal now is to be a full nuclear state." If that's true — and it's a big if — the outside world's diplomacy with Pyongyang will need to change, starting in Washington. Now that the tremors of what South Korea's geological service today called the "man-made earthquake" in the North have died down, that's one issue President Obama will have to confront head-on.
with reporting from Stephen Kim in Seoul

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