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[Lee Jae-min] Red Line?: NK’s 6th nuclear test

The otherwise blue and crispy Sunday afternoon was juxtaposed against the shocking news from the North. The now familiar veteran lady newsreader appeared on the North’s state television channel to announce the successful blast testing of a hydrogen bomb. The latest test has brought North Korea one step closer to the completion of its nuclear program and military deployment of nuclear arsenal.

With the sixth nuclear test, North Korea again thumbed its nose at the international community. This latest one is more startling because it was just one month ago that the UN Security Council imposed the strongest ever sanction (Resolution 2371) against North Korea after the regime’s consecutive missile launches on July 3rd and 28th. North Korea is almost asking, what is your next red line?

Even in the face of imminent military conflict, North Korea defies any notion of predictability and self-restraint. It is going its own way, no matter what, refusing to heed anyone’s advice, even China’s. It is not wavering a bit.

Come to think of it, for the North Korean regime, there is no reason to stop its nuclear program at this stage, as it is just one step away from the full operability of the weapon. In two or three years, with this armament it will seize military and diplomatic hegemony on the peninsula. So, it must be ready to endure any warning, threat or economic sanction in the interim. If it is a North Korean version of a dream come true, there is no reason to balk at this crucial time.

South Korea’s gross domestic product is 45 times bigger than the North’s. The South’s military spending is 10 times larger than North’s. All the economic success and military superiority of South Korea have now been upended at a single stroke. In retrospect, North Korea’s nuclear armament and companion missile development programs were the last straw of the regime on the verge of collapse. The last straw turns out a silver bullet for economic assistance and now for military superiority.

It was March 1993 that North Korea declared its withdrawal from the NPT. North Korea was faltering at the time, after the collapse of the east bloc and the continuing, devastating famine. Militarily and economically, North Korea was not a match for South Korea. The German-style absorption unification seemed within reach and almost a matter of time. In 24 years, the table is turned around and North Korea is now going to dictate the terms for peace or otherwise on the Korean Peninsula. Continuing on this path, it will be North Korea that will be in the driver’s seat of the car.

The 24-year chronology gives us belated enlightenment that it was a myth that North Korea would give up its nuclear ambition in exchange for economic incentives or mere assurance for the survival of the regime. Facing this, nobody takes the responsibility. There is no acknowledgement that the 24-year North Korean policy, through both conservative and liberal governments, has failed. While President Trump made a statement the other day that the US’ North Korean policy has failed for the past 24 years, a similar acknowledgement has not been made by anyone in South Korea, yet. As with anything, the first step is to acknowledge the failure and confront the reality. Only then can we explore future options.

It seems that unfortunately the only option now is to acknowledge the North Korean regime as a nuclear power and then find a way to respond or contain. Public views in Korea are fast changing in favor of bringing back US tactical nuclear weapons as a first step to restore the broken military balance. Dangerously, continuing provocation of the North will trigger a nuclear armament domino in this region.

The Sept. 3 test blasting marked a new turning point for the North Korean nuclear issue. Before we know it, we will encounter a completely new paradigm of confronting this issue.

By Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at -- Ed.