North Korea's apparent test of a nuclear weapon Monday seems to have been a desperate effort by President Kim Jong-il to display his strength at a time of weakness. Fearing his regime's future is threatened by economic sanctions imposed by the United States a year ago and supported by other nations, Mr. Kim has responded with nuclear saber-rattling.
The communist nation's claim that it tested an atomic weapon was the boom heard round the world, and it could set off a chain reaction that will fundamentally change the nature of security in Northeast Asia and the world.
Why did North Korea not give up its nuclear ambitions in exchange for U.S. lifting of economic sanctions and foreign aid? In North Korean culture, such an agreement would have been the ultimate sign of Mr. Kim's weakness, almost certainly causing the end of his regime.
The always insecure Mr. Kim knows full well that if he doesn't have enough hard currency to supply the needs of his nation's military and its elites, he could lose the loyalty of these groups and fall from power. Mr. Kim is willing to do just about anything to prevent that.
Moreover, Mr. Kim needs nuclear weapons as the only real sign of empowerment his government has, which he can portray as the crowning success story of an otherwise failing regime. In Mr. Kim's mind, nuclear weapons give him the leverage he craves to deter attacks by the United States and his neighbors, and to force them to negotiate with him. And he hopes nuclear threats will press his neighbors to pay him off rather than face nuclear destruction. Mr. Kim also sees nuclear technology and weapons as valuable export commodities and is cozying up to oil-rich Iran as a buyer able to pay huge sums of hard currency for nukes.
Mr. Kim's missile launches in July suggested he was already feeling serious pressure to flex his muscles. The communist dictator presumably hoped the missile tests would cause the United States to moderate its sanctions. If that did not happen, Mr. Kim probably hoped the launches would cause greater U.S.-South Korean friction, leading to greater South Korean aid to the North.
But the missile tests resulted in a much worse situation for North Korea. Japan imposed new sanctions, South Korea slashed aid to the North, China cut fuel and possibly other forms of aid, and the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution (supported by both China and Russia) to prevent North Korean missile sales.
Because Mr. Kim believes he would jeopardize his control of North Korea if he acted weakly to this worsened situation, he felt forced to find a way to react with defiance and strength, though he has few options for doing so short of war.
Mr. Kim's solution was to announce his nation has tested a nuclear bomb. As Adolf Hitler did with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain before World War II, Mr. Kim hopes to prove he is so dangerous his neighbors and the United States will be willing to make major concessions to buy "peace in our time."
As another sign of strength, North Korea is moving closer to fellow Axis of Evil member Iran, which appears to remain one of North Korea's few sources of hard currency. North Korea reportedly sent 18 or so new missiles to Iran early this year. These missiles are North Korean versions of the Soviet era SS-N-6, with sufficient range to reach Israel and most of Europe from Iran.
We can't know for certain how much North Korean-Iranian cooperation there really is, but the two nations clearly are very close. Mr. Kim may be trying to meet his hard currency needs in one of the few ways left to him by selling Iran weapons it wants and can pay for, and thereby sustain his appearance of "self-reliance."
North Korea is reported to have had Iranian arms buyers present at its missile tests in July. While we cannot be certain what North Korea was trying to sell the Iranians by showing off its missile tests, it is possible the North has migrated terminal guidance or other missile capabilities from the SS-21 missiles it acquired to its other short- to medium-range missiles. If so, Iran should be very interested in buying North Korea's new missile capabilities.
And the North Korean link with Iran appears to go beyond missiles. In February, U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte told Congress in testimony: "North Korea claims to have nuclear weapons — a claim that we assess is probably true — and has threatened to proliferate these weapons abroad."
The Los Angeles Times reported in 2003: "North Korean military scientists recently were monitored entering Iranian nuclear facilities. They are assisting in the design of a nuclear warhead, according to people inside Iran and foreign intelligence officials. So many North Koreans are working on nuclear and missile projects in Iran that a resort on the Caspian coast is set aside for their exclusive use."
Many in the United States believe the threat of an Iranian nuclear capability is still five to 10 years in the future. They therefore argue there is time to dissuade Iran from the path to nuclear weapons. But this timeline for Iran to go nuclear is based on the assumption Iranian nukes will come from its own independent weapons program. If Iran is able to secure nuclear materials and expertise from other countries like North Korea, the timeline could be dramatically shortened. It would appear this is exactly what Iran is trying to do.
Unfortunately, North Korea may be able to provide Iran with the help it needs to reach a short-term nuclear weapon capability and to hide any clear evidence of it.
Will the United Nations Security Council take tough new action against North Korea? Some on the Security Council are very worried such actions could cause the collapse of North Korea and destabilize Iran. As a result, the prevailing view has been the Security Council is unlikely to take either military action or strong sanctions that could precipitate the North Korean regime's collapse.
But now that North Korea has apparently tested an atomic weapon, members of the United Nations — especially China and South Korea — must ask if the threat of a North Korean government collapse is greater than North Korea's growing nuclear threat and its nuclear proliferation to regimes like Iran.
The apparent nuclear explosion in North Korea will likely compel some action by the Security Council and other nations. Leaders around the world criticized the North Korean nuclear test Monday, and the U.N. Security Council began working on a resolution condemning the action. President Bush said North Korea's test "constitutes a threat to international peace and stability." China called the test a "flagrant and brazen" violation of international opinion and said it "firmly opposes" North Korea's conduct. Russian President Vladimir Putin said. "Russia absolutely condemns North Korea's nuclear test."
The Security Council voted unanimously Oct. 6 to urge North Korea to abandon all nuclear weapons and cancel plans to detonate one. That resolution says a North Korean nuclear test would bring that nation "universal condemnation" and "represent a clear threat to international peace and security." In addition, the resolution warns that a nuclear test would lead the Security Council to take further action, which was not described.
In the future, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan may decide they have no choice but to join the nuclear club as well. This, along with action by the U.N. and other nations, will not reduce Mr. Kim's problems. In fact, the actions will almost certainly worsen the situation for North Korea considerably.
Bruce Bennett is a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization.
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This commentary originally appeared in Washington Times on October 15, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.