By Nicholas Hamisevicz
North Korea conducted a third nuclear test, and initial reports indicate a potentially larger explosion. North Korea’s media stated the test used a “miniaturized and lighter nuclear device.” If true, and combined with its successful rocket launch in December, these recent actions suggest North Korea’s ability to increase its direct military threat to the United States and its allies is outpacing the efforts to prevent it from developing these capabilities. Despite an environment ripe for engagement with its neighbors, North Korea had chosen to pursue improving its military capabilities. Even if deterrence against North Korea is strengthened, it is becoming clearer that North Korea must decide to change its actions in order to have a less contentious environment in Northeast Asia.
With the successful rocket launch already indicating a potential for North Korea to directly threaten the United States, this possibly larger nuclear test will also raise concerns about North Korea’s capabilities. The U.S. will return to the United Nations Security Council in hopes of tougher sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear program. In conjunction with the effort at the UN, the U.S. should strengthen its missile defense capabilities with South Korea and Japan, as well as push to strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiative measures that track and monitors suspicious North Korean ships and cargo. However, despite all of these previous efforts, North Korea has learned from other countries in the past and has now developed relatively indigenous missile and nuclear programs on their own. This makes it more difficult for countries to deter the improvement and use of these programs from outside pressure alone. Thus, the U.S. and its allies will try to bolster their deterrence efforts, but the nuclear test still leaves a sense that deterrence is not enough and engagement will be needed as well.
Before the rocket test in December and this nuclear test, the neighbors around North Korea were gearing up to try more engagement with North Korea, but North Korea rejected these overtures. North Korea and Japan were talking, albeit at a lower level. After being re-elected president and almost a month before North Korea’s rocket launch, at his speech at the University of Yangon Barack Obama specifically spoke to the North Korean leadership urging, “let go of your nuclear weapons and choose the path of peace and progress. If you do, you will find an extended hand from the United States of America.” Even after North Korea had its successful rocket test and satellite launch, President Obama’s second inaugural address stated that “engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear,” providing another outlet for potential engagement with North Korea if it changed its behavior. In South Korea, all the presidential candidates had to describe their plans for engaging North Korea during the campaign. Even after her election, Park Geun-hye reiterated that relations must improve with North Korea. But the nuclear test from North Korea has made it more difficult for countries to immediately pursue outreach efforts with North Korea. Park Geun-hye’s strong statement condemning the nuclear test suggests a frustration with North Korea for failing to respond positively to an environment fit for engagement.
Yet North Korea’s actions increasingly suggest that it is not necessarily the right balance of deterrence and engagement that matters most but the willingness of the North Korean leadership to enact positive change that helps its people and cooperates with its neighbors. Both deterrence and engagement were being attempted by the United State and South Korea. That right balance of deterrence and providing North Korea an outlet for constructive dialogue will help shape the political, security, and social environment to allow North Korea to benefit from undertaking significant positive change. However, the North Korean leadership appears to be deliberately trying to escalate tensions in the region and develop capabilities to threaten the United States and its allies. The United States, South Korea, and others countries will attempt further sanctions and policies to prevent provocations from North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. This will make it more difficult to engage North Korea and more likely that it is only a switch in North Korea’s outlook and actions that will change the dynamics in Northeast Asia for the better.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.