With a defiant nuclear explosion using Pakistan technology, North Korea (NK) blasted years of discriminatory nuclear regime sparking sharp reactions from regional and global players and possibly bringing in major changes to world strategic thought and orientation. Coinciding with Japanese Prime Minister Shinto Abe's visit to Seoul, the move delivered a major to foreign policy of US President George Bush, who is himself suffering from dwindling public confidence ahead of mid-term elections. Led by the US, the UN Security Council (UNSC) will most definitely heap fresh and harsher sanctions on NK's bankrupt economy, hardship on its poverty-ridden population, and tension to this dangerous neighborhood. Pyongyang's long-time chief ally, China denounced the test as "brazen" but did not disclose what its intentions are to deal with this crisis.
There was a lot of confusion and disagreement on the size of the bomb. With the Australian Seismology Research Centre reported less than 4 on the Richter scale, security analysts say in terms if yield, this could be from several hundred tons of TNT which could result from an unsuccessful nuclear test, a small nuclear bomb, or a non-nuclear explosion. While everyone agrees that intelligence analysis is required to determine the size and scope of this test, Russia estimates the bomb to be 5-15 kilotons and France 500 tons-the yield from a Hiroshima bomb was 12.5 kilotons. Apparently, NK gave China a 20 minute warning of the test and Beijing immediately alerted Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul.
Last week, Pyongyang announced that it would conduct a nuclear test accusing the US of forcing its hand through threats of nuclear war and economic sanctions but promised that it would not be the first to use it. The UNSC tried to pressure NK into holding off its plans while the so-called 6 Nations interface (US, Russia, Japan, China, South Korea, and North Korea) opened up. Seoul and Beijing have been counseling moderation with a hard-line Tokyo and Washington so the world does not push Pyongyang into a corner. However, all 5 interlocutors agree that Pyongyang should end its 11-month boycott of six-nation talks on ending its nuclear arms program.
Ever since World War II, the US and North Korea never agreed on key issues. During the Korean War, US President Harry Truman threatened nuclear weapon attack and in 1953, US President Eisenhower used nuclear weapons threat to bring a hasty truce. There are unconfirmed reports that US dropped infected insects into parts of North Korea in 1952. The US also secretly deployed nuclear weapons in 1957 in South Korea. It was in response to this that NK despot Kim Il Sung started his nuclear quest. The South started its own nuclear quest in 1970 but abandoned it under US pressure. US officials estimate that NK has enough fuel to develop up to a dozen nuclear bombs.
Persuaded by the erstwhile Soviet Union, NK signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985. However, with the collapse of USSR NK saw itself without a patron, financer, and vulnerable to US threats. Regular US Army exercises with Seoul and Tokyo was often seen, and deliberately portrayed, as plans for invasion. In 1993, hen NK announced that it plans to quit the NPT a desperate US got into direct negotiations with Pyongyang without involving any regional powers and created an Agreed Framework Accord. The US obviously negotiated in ill-faith believing that Kim Jong Il regime will collapse and except for a USD 500 million package, the US did not fulfill any part of this deal that it unilaterally abrogated in 2001. Some say that this USD 500 million kept the despotic regime afloat. Hence, described as one among the "axis of evil" by Bush and as a prelude to the Iraqi invasion, NK sees that its nuclear weapons and missiles are the only means that would stop a large scale invasion. As a prelude to these tests, NK "escorted" International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors out of the country in 2002, withdrew from the NPT in 2003, and withdrew from the IAEA in 1994.
The tests bring to fore questions the origins of the technology sourced by NK to develop its bomb. For years now, analysts have been pointing out growing barter trade between NK and Pakistan exchanging information, designs, components, and technology of missiles and nuclear bombs. NK had missiles that Pakistan wanted and NK wanted nuclear bombs that Islamabad acquired through the thievery of disgraced nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. But then the relationship between these two non-democratic administrations started in the 70s.
Pakistan sources artillery and rocket launchers during the 1971 Bangladesh war with India from NK. Later in 1980s, scientists and contractors collaborated with Iran to develop missiles. In 1991, Pakistan sources SCUD missile technology from NK and closed the deal in August 1992 through part of a military delegation visiting China that broke off for a side trip to Pyongyang. This was formalized by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's visit in 1993 to sign a number of defense agreements. A USD 50 million hard currency deal saw the transfer of 11 consignments of Nodong 1 missiles from January 1997-March 1998 through unrecorded secret flights. When Pakistan tested its nuclear bomb in response to Indian tests in 1998, several reports say that NK observers were present during the tests. Some reports even say that one of those tests was using plutonium and was done for NK. In the same year, Islamabad shipped P-1 and P-2 centrifuges along with reports, drawings, sketches, data, and depleted uranium hexafluoride gas. Further, Pakistan has been helping Pyongyang on "cold tests" which includes checking of every component without actually testing it. While acknowledging that Khan exported nuclear technology to Iran, NK, Libya, and another West Asian nation believed to be Saudi Arabia, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf swears that Khan acted alone, without state support, and for personal gain. However, he has not answered how Khan had unfettered access to military equipment, aircraft, personnel, and information. Moreover, he does not allow international and independent investigative access to Khan who is under house arrest and ill with prostrate cancer. He does not say where Khan has his millions stashed and how is that that has been sequestered by Pakistan or the international community.
The US response to the tests has been disappointing at least. Unnamed officials have sought to trivialize the impact by saying that the tests are more like a "fizzle" and that the yield expected is in the range of several hundred tons of TNT. While Bush has made strong statements about the unacceptability of the tests and further sanctions, it is unclear what exactly is the US planning to do. As one of the proponents of this crisis, it cannot add to it by pushing Pyongyang further into desperation. Simultaneously, it cannot ignore the event and not do something concrete as 30 other nations with enough technology, money, and materials are watching to gain nuclear weapons status. While Japan has initially said that it does not plan to change it nuclear weapons policy, further tests will drive Japan and South Korea into that fold. This change will automatically change Chinese position on the issue which will therefore affect Indian defense strategy.
India has been at pains to convince that its case should not be lumped with NK. While left-wing papers seem to draw that parallel, more balanced views would see the difference:
While it is true that NK has detonated its bomb after it left the NPT, the proliferation of nuclear technology happened while it was part of the NPT which requires full disclosure. India was never a part of the NPT and therefore cannot be compared in the same vein.
NK had a clandestine nuclear policy while India's was more transparent.
NK has proliferated nuclear and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technology while India has a record that beats every nation (including the US).
NK is a dictatorial state that impoverishes the people to bolster the military and the opinions of the people are never taken into account. On the other hand, India is a democracy and there is a wide-spread support for nuclear weapons and this opinion has been ascertained by peaceful and democratic means.
The immediate impact to India is bound to be along the following grounds:
There could be a delay in the US Senate on the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal as nuclear Ayatollahs in the US are bound to use NK as an example to refuse nuclear rights to India. New Delhi has to preempt this by socializing the differences extensively with the US Senate members and Administration officials.
The clearance from the NSG meeting is bound to be delayed as nay-sayers would use the NK blasts as an example of granting exemption to India. India needs to go on the offensive here to insist that by equating NK with India, these nay-sayers are rewarding proliferators while denying legitimate needs of a law-abiding nation. It needs to reinforce this logic with other NSG supporters such as France, UK, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa.
The US policy making body being uni-focused is bound to lose steam on terrorism, resurgent Taliban, and cross border terrorism. It is important India continues to highlight these issues frequently and continue to engage Pakistan to work out a joint mechanism to fight cross-border terror.