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North Korea: Examining Where Crisis Goes From Here

North Korea's Kim Jong Il now has the world's attention (file photo) (epa) PRAGUE, October 9, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Now that North Korea appears to have carried out its first test of a nuclear weapon, where does the crisis go from here? What are Washington's or Moscow's or Beijing's options? To find out, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten spoke with Aidan Foster-Carter, a leading Korea analyst at Britain's Leeds University.

RFE/RL: North Korea has claimed the ability to make nuclear weapons for at least the past three years but only now has it apparently carried out a nuclear test. Usually, countries carry out a nuclear test and then stake their claim to entry in the 'nuclear club.' Why did Pyongyang do it backward?

Aidan Foster-Carter: I'm thinking of the analogy of the punk on the street who says: 'Got a gun, got a gun' and you don't know if he's just threatening. The reason they did it this way is that [Pyongyang's priority in] the developing North Korea nuclear crisis, which unfolded in late 2002 and escalated, has been warning off the U.S. and particularly U.S. hawks. But of course it could be just bravado and [you may be challenged with people saying,] 'If you've got it, prove it.' Well, it seems they've proved it.

RFE/RL: The United States last week warned North Korea it would take "strong action" if it undertook a nuclear test. What are Washington's options?

Foster-Carter: It's very hard to know what strong action is available. But of course they've said this and the worst of all is that once people say these things, they then have to live up to them. So we go back to the UN, we go to the Security Council and get another resolution. This time, the U.S. and Japan will push very hard for it to be a Chapter 7 resolution, i.e. unlike the missile resolution, one that explicitly allows for military action if North Korea doesn't play ball [cooperate].

But North Korea isn't going to play ball and everybody knows that military action is really not possible for all sorts of reasons, quite apart from the fact that we know they've got a nuclear weapon. In any case, Seoul -- the South Korean capital -- is so close to the border that there was always the potential that if it got to a military confrontation, they could just rain military fire on Seoul.

So it's very, very, difficult. Some countries will go for sanctions. The Chinese, doubtless, will try to get everyone around a table. It needs to be around a table. But the trouble is that when someone does something like this you can't say immediately say let's talk. There has to be a decent interval and a lot of saber-rattling first.

Will China Turn Off The Tap?

RFE/RL: How dependent is North Korea on outside economic aid? Is it at the mercy of the Chinese?

Foster-Carter: The Chinese could turn off the tap. Really, they're the only ones who could. The South Koreans partly turned some off theirs already. Half a million tons of rice hasn't been sent because of the [recent] missile [tests]. And now there's going to be business cooperation and tourism and they're going to have to at least freeze that or cut that down. But the Chinese are the big ones.

And it's still not clear whether they will [cut North Korea off] because there are bad things and there are worse things. A nuclear North Korea is bad, particularly when it's defied Beijing so grossly and China has lost face. But there is something worse. And the worse thing, from the Chinese viewpoint, is a collapsed North Korea with possible loose nukes or possibly all 23 million North Koreans deciding to be refugees either in China or South Korea. And South Korea doesn't want that either. So that's what they fear.

Korean Advantage

RFE/RL: Ban Ki-moon, the South Korean foreign minister, is almost certain to become the next UN secretary-general. Do you expect him to focus more on North Korea than Kofi Annan did?

Foster-Carter: Ban Ki-moon will make it a priority. But it doesn't follow that this will help. The North Koreans are still ambivalent about South Korea, even after eight years of the 'Sunshine Policy' and getting a lot of aid and quasi-support from the South.

Also, the North Koreans don't really like the UN very much anyway. Remember, the Korean War half-a-century ago was done in the name of the United Nations. It was officially a UN force, led by the Americans and mainly Western countries, that actually came to South Korea's defense and took the war to North Korea. So they've never liked the UN all that much anyway. So [his being South Korean] probably is a plus, but it may not be a huge one. Goodness me, this would be a Gordian knot for anybody to solve -- Korean or Martian.

RFE/RL: Do you expect South Korea to draw closer to the hard-line U.S. and Japanese position toward Pyongyang, now that Seoul's "Sunshine Policy" appears to have been a failure?

Foster-Carter: It's curtains for the 'Sunshine Policy.' The Roh Myu-hoon center-left government in South Korea, which has only got a year left to run anyway, is very, very weak. So, they've got nowhere else to go. I was just watching Roh Myu-hoon's press conference and he didn't look like a happy man at all.

Who's Got The Bomb?

Who's Got The Bomb?


country warheads (est.) date of first test

United States 10,500 1945

Russia 18,000 1949

United Kingdom 200 1952

France 350 1960

China 400 1964

India 60-90 1974

Pakistan 28-48 1998

North Korea 0-18 2006


Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, but it has not declared itself a nuclear-armed country.

South Africa constructed six uranium bombs but voluntarily dismantled them.

Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine all gave up the nuclear weapons that were on their territory when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.