North Korea conducts third nuclear test: two alternate response proposals

It appears the North is doing exactly what it said it was going to do – become a nuclear state, then, like every other nuclear state before it, develop a weapon small enough to fit atop a missile. This should be no surprise, the North’s takeaway from the war in Iraq was that it needed nukes to ensure its security; it literally mocked Qaddafi for being tricked into giving up his pursuit of nukes:

“The present Libyan crisis teaches the international community a serious lesson. It was fully exposed before the world that ‘Libya’s nuclear dismantlement’ much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former […] to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force. It proved once again the truth of history that peace can be preserved only when one builds up one’s own strength.” [KCNA website, 24 March 2011].

The idea that additional UN sanctions, much discussed in today’s reporting, will push North Korea from this path is delusory. This is a country that is already one of the most sanctioned on earth and operates under an ideology of self-reliance so stringent it views international trade as a weakness. Expecting anything different from additional sanctions brings to mind the old saw about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

At the end of the day, after denunciations and threats of added sanctions, the international community has few untried options for the North: invasion, the old ‘convince China to do something, this time, this one time, this final time’ fallback, and threatening to flood the country with information, as advocated here and elsewhere. Leaving aside invasion, which appears unlikely, leaves the latter two options.

One, convincing China to get tough with the North, has proven utterly useless after previous nuke tests and missile launches. Why would it be different this time? It probably won’t be, but it’s time the U.S. (along with Japan, South Korea, and the international community) tried a new tactic with China. Instead of trying to berate, appeal to morals, appeal to treaties, remonstrate, or reason, the international community needs to address China’s actual concerns: a flood of North Korean refugees destabilizing China’s northeast and U.S. troops on its border, should the peninsula reunify under the South.

A promise from the international community to fund temporary resettlement camps in China, coupled with the South’s reiteration that all North Korean refugees can quickly resettle in the South, would help. If China knows it can speedily shuttle the refugees off to Seoul, then one of its primary concerns is addressed. The other, no U.S. troops on its border, is a harder sell (would the U.S. Congress acquiesce to China sending troops to Mexico to help with, say, drug smuggling or human trafficking?). The U.S. needs to state, clearly and unequivocally, that it will not station troops in North Korean territory should the peninsula reunify. The Chinese may not believe this, but it costs nothing to say, either the pledge on troops or the resettlement camps, and what harm is there in making the effort? Even if it eventually proves no more ‘successful’ than past measures, it literally can’t hurt to try.

Second, as previously discussed here and elsewhere, the North feels most threatened not by military action, which it views as a bluff, but by information penetrating the tight censorship controls it has on its populace. Threaten to drop 10,000 bombs and the North can simply respond by threatening to shell Seoul. Threaten to drop 10,000 smartphones and the North has no similar response. Sure, it could choose to escalate, but it knows the outcome of a war as clearly as anyone else – the North’s regime is about threats, not suicide.

So, instead of sanctions and carrying on (and on, and on, …) about how the North’s actions are a grave threat and hinder its ability to integrate into world society (which it views as a goal, not a punishment), why not try something new? Announce tomorrow that the U.S. and international community would like to fund refugee camps in China, speedily resettle the refugees into South Korea, and drop thousands of smartphones into the North. Cost to announce this? Nothing. Chance it will work? At least equal to another round of sanctions, tut-tutting, and wrist slaps.

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