North Korea Threatens Nuclear Test

David C. Kang
Dartmouth College/Co-author, "Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies"
Wednesday, October 4, 2006; 2:00 PM

David C. Kang , an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College and co-author of "Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies," was online Wednesday, Oct. 4, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss North Korea's announcement that it plans to test a nuclear weapon. The threat has draw strong reaction from around the world, including Japan, South Korea and the U.S.

Read more: N. Korea Threat Raises Tensions , ( Post, Oct. 4, 2006 )

N. Korean Move Comes Amid Bid for Talks , ( Post, Oct. 4, 2006 )

The transcript follows.


Alexandria,Va.: Is North Korea going to try to put warheads on missiles on subs? Will they sell those to other states like Saudi Arabia or Iran? Is Pakistan working on the same thing? Will North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Palestinian Authority, Iran, new Iraq, Cuba, Venezuela, etc. have these subs in 5 to 10 years off the coasts of Europe, America and India? Will they form a new axis around this? Will they ask us for money as a group in a shakedown?

David C. Kang: North Korea's submarine force is small and technologically limited, as is its missile program. North Korea has not yet successfully tested a long-range ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missile), and most analysts think they are a decade away from having any type of working missile, much less one that can carry a warhead. Their subs are mainly small (7-10 person), and it is probably unrealistic to think they could not only develop nuclear-capable submarines, but the missile technology to go along with that. So this is not a major concern at this point


Leewood, Kan.: Given our stated guarantees that we do not intend to overthrow the North Korean government by force and the unlikelihood that a North Korean regime would give operational control of so important an strategic asset as a nuclear weapon to anyone outside of their central committee, does a North Korean nuke really matter? I hardly see this changing the force equation very much since they clearly lack the ability to project force outside their borders in any meaningful way. All it does is raise the cost of "regime change": a policy we have publicly disavowed anyway.

David C. Kang: This is a good point. As I noted above, It will be a while before North Korea has any type of delivery capacity, and so having a few bombs does not alter the military equation that much. The concern is that North Korea may sell those bombs to terrorist groups, but as for North Korea posing a genuine military threat, that is a much less likely proposition. You are right, though, that it would make "regime change" or a preemptive strike on our part more difficult to achieve, but that is not a likely scenario anyway.


Arlington, Va.: If they were to conduct such a test, does anybody have an idea as to WHERE they would do it?

David C. Kang: Jeffrey Lewis of the "Managing the Atom Project" at Harvard posted a Google map of the suspected test site ( Look for the entry headed "North Korean Nuclear Test?" from yesterday.


New York, N.Y.: Do you think China will restrain North Korea? If not, what does this say about China's emergence as a great power?

David C. Kang: A number of you have asked about China's role in all this. China has no desire to see a nuclear armed North Korea -- but at the same time, the Chinese fear rapid regime change and the possibility of ten million refugees flooding over their border even more, and so have been prodding North Korea to move down a path of economic reform.

On this particular issue of a nuclear test, no country in the region really wants to see it happen. The Chinese are probably trying to talk North Korea out of it, but what this shows it that the real confrontation is between the US and North Korea, and China (or South Korea, for that matter), has limited ability to affect that confrontation. The real question is how China would respond to a North Korean nuclear test. On the one hand, some have argued that China should take a harder line with the North. Others think that is unlikely.

My own interactions with Chinese officials/academics leads me to conclude that on the whole, the Chinese are not fond of North Korea, yet at the same time they view the US as having almost as much to do with the spiraling tensions as the North Koreans.


Washington, D.C.: Even though they are trying to demonstrate nuclear power, could this move also show some desperation? How is the economic situation there compared to five years ago? 10?

David C. Kang: Most likely, the North Korean announcement that they might test is a response to the continued U.S. financial/economic pressure over the past year. There are some indications that the US moves to cut off illegal financial transactions have begun to hurt the North Korean leadership. That being said, North Korea's economic situation is much improved from its nadir a decade ago; although North Korea's economy is hardly robust at this point, there has been limited economic growth over the past few years, although it remains close to collapse and most observers see the North Korean economy as basically at subsistence levels at this point.

North Korea has historically met external pressure with pressure of their own. My own sense is that this was a fairly predictable move -- as Japan has increased its economic sanctions against the North, and as the US has continued to do so, North Korea's response has been to escalate in turn. Whether they will actually test or not is another question, which I'll get to next.


Washington, D.C.: This may be an oversimplified question given the fact that the world has to take this seriously, but do you think they will actually do it? If they do a nuclear test, do they risk alienating China?

David C. Kang: Interestingly, the North did not announce a date for the test, they merely said they would conduct a test. In a way, this may be a step-wise approach to escalation: if the announcement of a test doesn't give the regime what it wants, they still have the option of actually conducting a test. But North Korea has often made pronouncements merely for rhetorical purposes, and so it could be that if circumstances change, the North doesn't actually test a bomb.


Toronto, Canada: I suspect U.S. options with N. Korea are very limited given the limited success this administration has enjoyed in its Middle East foreign policy, comments by Dr. Rice notwithstanding.

Clearly the best policy would be direct negotiations with North Korea. This administration continues to isolate itself by dealing through intermediaries such as China whose influence as a result continues to grow at the expense of the United States.

Would you agree that it is in China's interest that the United States continue to be embroiled in these "negotiations" for a long, long time?

David C. Kang: The open secret regarding North Korea is that most country's options are fairly limited. An actual military strike on the North would be extremely risky, given the North's artillery and short-range missiles, which could devastated South Korea and parts of Japan. At the same time, the Bush administration has avoided direct bilateral talks, preferring the six party talks (Russia, China, Japan, the US, South and North Korea). The North has refused to return to the six party talks until the US drops its financial sanctions against it.

I think it's also a mistake to hope that China or South Korea will use their leverage against the North in aid of U.S. policy goals. US pressure has directly undercut the engagement strategies of China and South Korea, putting both those countries in a difficult position. While it may be that China and South Korea abandon engagement and join with the US in a coercive approach, I think that's unlikely for the time being.


Bethesda, Md.: What do you think would be the most prudent course of action for the U.S.? It seems like a bit of a catch-22.

David C. Kang: This follows from the preceding question. The U.S. needs to decide whether coercion is helping contain the North Korean nuclear issue, or whether it is in fact exacerbating it by prompting a response. The Bush administration has taken the approach that coercion will eventually cause the North to capitulate. Yet the actual record over four years is that a plutonium program that was suspended and under IAEA inspections is now back in full production, we don't know how much plutonium they have produced, and the North may now actually show it has a nuclear weapons capability. What is the response to this? Some argue that even more pressure is needed, and that at some point the North will back down. I am more skeptical whether that approach will work: it seems that the North responds by escalating themselves in response.

At the same time, the economic engagement approach taken by China and South Korea has borne fruit on the economic side, yet it has not had a mitigating effect on the security issues, in part because the US has not chosen to participate. Without coordination by China, the US, Japan, and South Korea, it is unlikely that any policy will be that effective.


Ashburn, Va.: Does the North Korean government genuinely believe that they are threatened militarily by the U.S. or is this a way to attract attention and/or a way to blackmail the rest of the world?

David C. Kang: A number of you have asked this, as well as about links between Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea.

The key issue is whether North Korea has legitimate security concerns. If it does, coercion is unlikely to resolve those security concerns and convince North Korea to disarm. If North Korea does NOT have security concerns, then its nuclear program is in fact aggressive and aimed at offensive capability and/or blackmail. The difficulty, of course, lies in determining this. Given that the US and North Korea have never signed a peace treaty after the 1950 war, that the US has used force against other nations in the "axis of evil," and that the US keeps up financial and other types of pressure on the North, I'd say there's reason for the North to feel threatened by the US.

As to links between North Korea and the middle east, they certainly exist -- the North sold missiles to Iraq, and has had links with the AQ Khan network of Pakistan. Yet these links are more of a financial aspect, rather than an alliance among like-minded countries.


David C. Kang: Thanks very much everyone for a lively discussion. Sorry that I have to stop so soon, there are many good questions out there that I didn't get a chance to answer. I've enjoyed it very much.

David Kang


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