By Cheon Seong-whun
More than a hundred days have passed since North Korea shocked the international community on Oct. 9, 2006, by carrying out its first nuclear test at an underground testing site in a northeastern province of the country. The test was a physical demonstration to vindicate its official pronouncement on Feb. 10, 2005 that North Korea possessed nuclear weapons and would further bolster its nuclear arsenal.
Although technically imperfect, nuclear test meant that North Korea had crossed the de facto red line, creating enormous geopolitical implications in Northeast Asia as well as delivering a serious blow to international nonproliferation efforts.
Put simply, North Korea before the nuclear test cannot but be different from the country after the test. Based on the demonstrated nuclear capability, North Korea expects to carry out an aggressive three pronged nuclear strategy.
The North Korean leadership will take maximum advantage of the nuclear test for domestic politics. They will use the test to buttress regime stability and quell public discontent.
About a week after the nuclear test, around 100,000 people gathered in Pyongyang to celebrate the successful nuclear test and official debut of North Korea as a nuclear weapon state. Since then, the test has been advocated as a symbol of juche, or self-reliance, in science and military affairs as well as the coming of age of military-first politics - Kim Jong-il`s guiding philosophy. The North Korean elites also are trying to offset responsibility for a failed economy by the successful nuclear weapon development.
They argue that North Korea had to build self-defense power by sacrificing the economy for the benefit of national security, and since the successful nuclear test demonstrates this power, they can now invest more resources in developing the economy and the people`s well being.
In short, nuclear capability will become a key component of guaranteeing regime maintenance in domestic politics.
Grand unification strategy
North Korea will launch an assertive campaign to bring its version of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula into realization.
North and South Korea are dreaming different dreams in regard to denuclearization. For Seoul, if North Korean nuclear weapons are dismantled, denuclearization of the peninsula is completed because South Korea has faithfully fulfilled nonproliferation obligations and the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn in 1991.
On the other hand, Pyongyang`s version of denuclearization is not one-sided as Seoul hopes but attempts at removing nuclear threats caused by the United States. North Koreans argue that the following measures should be taken to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula; to prohibit passing, landing or visiting of nuke-deliverable aircraft or ships on the Korean Peninsula; to ban an agreement guaranteeing a nuclear umbrella for Seoul; to forbid military exercises involving nuclear weapons.
The problem is that if these measures are accepted, the South Korea-U.S. alliance becomes nullified. That is, U.S. forces maneuvering around the peninsula, a South Korea-U.S. mutual security treaty, and annual joint military exercises could rebuff the North`s demand.
Notably, even after the tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from the peninsula, the North could still accuse South Korea-U.S. military exercises as nuclear war training.
By insisting on their version of denuclearization, North Koreans are ultimately aiming at the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Korea and the unification of the peninsula on their terms. It should be remembered that the North Korean regime has tenaciously pursued the withdrawal of the USFK since 1953.
From the 1950s to the 1990s, North Korea had linked reduction of its enormous conventional armaments with a withdrawal of U.S. forces and nuclear weapons. Since it succeeded in acquiring nuclear weapons, it is not surprising that it starts to demand mutual nuclear disarmament with the United States as shown in the recent six-party talks.
North Koreans are saying that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a will of the late President Kim Il-sung. As explained, though, basic intentions and contents of denuclearization are quite dissimilar between the two Koreas.
What North Korea`s leadership aspires to achieve is to utilize nuclear weapons as a medium to denounce foreign (American) intervention and take an initiative for unification on its terms, which was probably what Kim Il-sung had in mind.
To the North Korean regime, denuclearization is not an end in itself but a means to achieve bigger political aims. That is, nuclear weapons are a precious and critical component of the North`s grand unification strategy.
Then, an extremely difficult question posed to Washington and Seoul is whether they are willing to trade denuclearization of North Korea for a withdrawal of USFK and a U.S.-North Korea peace agreement.
Sooner or later they will have to give, coordinated or not, their answers may be to this question.
North Korea will make every effort to increase capacity and credibility of its nuclear arsenal. For this purpose, Pyongyang could take out spent fuel rods from their 5-megawatt reactor and extract plutonium from them any time in 2007.
In the latest six-party talks, the North proposed, as an initial gesture for denuclearization, to stop running the 5-megawatt reactor, which has been operating with the current fuel load since June 2005. But there is a caveat in the proposal. We should not put too much importance on it because North Koreans are expected to unload the reactor anyway this year.
According to Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratories, who visited Pyongyang in November 2006, the director of the Yongbyon nuclear complex told him that from a technical perspective, North Korean scientists would unload the 5-megawatt reactor sometime in 2007.
Taking out spent fuels from the reactor is a prearranged event, not a significant setback from the part of North Korea. Instead, it would give an additional bargaining chip for the North, yielding two bombs` worth of spent fuel for reprocessing.
In addition, the North also intends to carry out another nuclear test to assure that its nuclear weapons work with confidence. The interval of a week or so between the nuclear test and national celebration indicates that the North Korean leadership might have been embarrassed about the poor result of the first test.
It is also well aware that the international community was not impressed with the deficient testing performance. Thus, the North Korean leadership is highly likely to try a second nuclear test to sweep away the international suspicion of its nuclear weapon capability and to bolster its status as a nuclear weapon country.
Of course, these measures are very provocative and could trigger serious tension on the peninsula. When these measures are to be taken will be closely linked with the outcome of the financial sanctions talks between Pyongyang and Washington as well as the six-party talks.
North Koreans will cautiously weigh the timing of the measures to deliver maximum impact on the strategic calculations and public opinion of the United States.
While President Bush is tied down with the Iraq quagmire and public support is plummeting, determined North Korean elites might think that time is on their side.