North Korea Ratchets Up Tensions

Marcus Noland discusses the regional and international implications of North Korea’s latest nuclear test, which he says represents a worrisome escalation.

Marcus Noland (PIIE)

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Unedited Transcript

Pedro da Costa: Hi. I'm Pedro da Costa, editorial fellow here at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. I'm joined by Marcus Noland. He's Executive Vice President and Director of Studies here. And perhaps more relevantly for our purposes. He is our resident expert on East Asia and an avid blogger on all issues related to North Korea. Thank you for joining me today.

Marcus Noland:  My pleasure.

Pedro da Costa: So, Marcus, North Korea has done its fifth nuclear test now, but this test seems to have created more fear in the international community than previous attempts by the North Koreans to flex their military muscle, why is that?

Marcus Noland:  Well, the speed of testing has accelerated. This is the second test they've done this year. And it follows on a rash of missile tests and following this test, the North Koreans announced that they have successfully miniaturized a warhead and they can actually load it on to those missiles. And it's the biggest test they've done thus far.

So, you have bigger, more rapid testing, and some sense that they are really getting closer to merging these two programs, the nuclear missile programs. That's what has everyone unnerved.

Pedro da Costa: Okay. So, the threat is actually -- it appears to be elevating and at a rapid pace. So, can you talk about the political context both in the international sense of how relations in Asia and with the United States affect this, and also how the domestic political landscape as it is within North Korea might be directing this behavior by Kim Jong-il?

Marcus Noland:  Well, let me start with the domestic part of that because I think that actually may be the more important driver. It was no accident that this test was on North Korea's National Day. It's the equivalent of you're doing a nuclear test on the 4th of July.

Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, has made the nuclear weapons program central to his political legitimacy. And that is important because that means he can't give it up very easily.

There may also be internal politics. There may be divisions within the government, between the military and other people who have other priorities, but the fact of the matter is whatever the internal politics, this has become so central to regime legitimacy. They can't give this up very easily.

They have something called the Byungjin Line, which is the simultaneous or parallel pursuit of nuclear weapons and economic development. The Byungjin Line is not a strategic vision. It's a political compromise. And as long as they're developing nuclear weapons, it's going to be very difficult to develop the country economically.

So, this is central to their legitimacy. It's going to be very hard for them to give it up.

Internationally, the fact that they're progressing with the nuclear weapons program, the fact that they're progressing with the missile program creates anxiety in South Korea and Japan.

The United States is providing a missile interception system called THAAD. The Chinese are very upset about THAAD as are the Russians to a certain extent because they say THAAD aimed at them.

But the North Korean nuclear test makes opposition in China to THAAD much harder to sustain. It's understandable the South Koreans and the Japanese will want to be able to defend themselves against this threat.

Pedro da Costa: So, where does it leave China diplomatically? It has kind of a client state that it appears to have lost control of.

Marcus Noland:  China's behavior shows that however much they rhetorically condemn these nuclear tests, the missile tests, and however marginally more tough they've been willing to get in the UN Security Council, ultimately, they fear North Korean political instability and possible unification of the Korean peninsula under Seoul as more threatening than a nuclear North Korea.

Now, in the end, that scenario risks not just THAAD, but nuclear proliferation in South Korea and Japan. These are rich technologically advanced countries with large nuclear industries.

Those countries not going nuclear is a political decision, not a technological one. And China could find itself, at the end of the day, surrounded by nuclear arm powers.

But, Chinese diplomacy has shown they are more willing to tolerate a nuclear North Korea than they are to get tough with North Korea and risk instability in North Korea that could end in unification.

Pedro da Costa: And is there anything that the US can do diplomatically to either change China's mind or nudge it in that direction?

Marcus Noland:  Well, I think really what the United States can do is, first of all, what we've been trying to do. We just tighten the sanctions. Force North Korea into a position where it has a clear choice. It can either retain the nuclear weapons and be hungry, dark and cold because international economic sanctions will be so severe or they can give up the nuclear program and become a full-fledged member of the international community.

One could imagine an in-state where there is a peace treaty that formally ends the Korean War. There's diplomatic recognition of North Korea by the United States. And there's a commitment to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

Though, a recognition that there will be an intermediate period in which North Korea will retain some kind of nuclear capacity. It's not completely all or nothing.

The problem for the United States is when it pushes on the North Koreans and tries to push them to the wall to make that clear choice, China lets the wall move backwards by backing up the North Koreans.

And so, we're in this situation where the US pushes, China is unwilling to really go to the mat. And as a consequence, the North Koreans have figured this out. They can act with impunity.

Pedro da Costa: They're pushing the limits.

Marcus Noland:  Absolutely.

Pedro da Costa: Thank you so much, Marcus. I appreciate your time.

Marcus Noland:  My pleasure.