by Andrew O’Neil, ABC Unleashed (26 May 2009)
North Korea’s decision to conduct a second nuclear test this week will have significant repercussions for the future security of East Asia and the Asian region more generally.
In the short term, it will force regional states to dispense with the idea that Pyongyang’s nuclear program can be stopped. In the longer term, it will force these states to engage North Korea as a fully-fledged nuclear weapons power. Neither course is particularly palatable for any government in Asia. They both have the potential to dramatically – and irrevocably – recast Asia’s security environment. And, short of war to destroy the DPRK’s nuclear assets, they are both inescapable…
Make no mistake: the North Korean regime has an unbreakable strategic commitment to becoming an established nuclear weapons state in Asia. The sobering reality is that there is absolutely nothing the international community can do to prevent this from happening. So the fundamental question is: how should we engage North Korea as a nuclear-armed state?..
Ultimately, this is a test of the political resolve of the Obama administration and the extent to which Washington is willing to reinforce the credibility of extended deterrence in Asia. The second element of any new strategy must encompass constructive politico-security engagement with Pyongyang. This may sound like mission impossible in view of North Korea’s well established duplicity, but the temptation to further isolate North Korea in the wake of its second nuclear test must be resisted….
In dealing with an emerging nuclear state, one of the worst outcomes is deeper isolation of that country. Lines of communication must be kept open to avoid the ever present trap of misperception – pragmatism must rule over any desire to punish. Led by Washington, regional states must engage Pyongyang directly on issues relating to nuclear security and safety, including potential assistance to help safeguard against the accidental launching of nuclear weapons, and strongly pushing for a verifiable cap on the number of North Korean warheads….
The worst response to North Korea’s second test would be to try and resurrect the argument that Pyongyang can somehow be persuaded to de-link its nuclear weapons ambitions from its overall national security doctrine. The link is as “close as lips and teeth”, and persisting with the failed strategy of non-proliferation will only delay what is now inevitable: engaging North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.
* Andrew O’Neil is associate professor of international relations at Flinders University. He is a chief investigator on the Australian Research Council project “Australia’s Nuclear Choices” and the author of Nuclear Proliferation in Northeast Asia: The Quest for Security (Palgrave Macmilan, New York, 2007).