North Korea’s political victory

October 18, 2006

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is off on an Asian tour as a response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test. It is contended that a second test is possible and it is necessary to discuss all the sanctions put into place. (Cf: “Rice to rally Asians on N Korea”.)

The move, along with recent US activity at the UN Security Council, is a bold departure from some initial perceptions of the test being a bluff. This indicates a big political victory for the leadership of North Korea — with attention currently on Iran and it’s uranium enrichment program, the Koreans have surprised everyone. And everyone has been caught without a clear or definitive plan.

The Koreans now have a lot of leverage and can expect negotiations, because sanctions might not be effective for a country which has long been isolated diplomatically (cf: “Negotiations Must Follow UN’s North Korea Action, Analysts Say”). This is not new — under Clinton, a lot had been generated with similar threats, but this time the weapons are actually there. (For a detailed article on the Clinton negotiations, cf: “Appeasing North Korea: the Clinton Legacy”)

No matter the rhetoric, these weapons are unlikely to be used. Once, the Soviet Union matched the United States in its nuclear capability, the lure of the atom bomb, was no longer the same. With other world powers acquiring similar capabilities, nuclear war became unlikely, because it would lead to global annihilation, and the weapons became a status symbol. While the victors of WWII seat the permanent seats on the UN Security Council, it is not a coincidence that all these powers came to acquire nuclear weapons technology. Some would argue that a declining France needed those weapons to remain on its prestigious post.

Why is North Korea acquiring these weapons? The prestige, the threat to its southern neighbor (similar to Israel’s undeclared, but widely publicized Nuclear capability), and the negotiating advantage.

It is a political victory, for now. Because the sanctions that it received are non-effective, and the government now looks stronger than ever on the domestic political scene. For a country that bases a lot of its raison d’etre on its opposition to America, this is a perfect distraction from any internal problems and instabilities.


2 Responses to “North Korea’s political victory”

  1. lightcontrast Says:

    North Korea still has the support of China right?

  2. Dmitri Says:

    China, like Russia, borders with North Korea. And is also probably its only remaining ally — the communist legacy bringing the two countries together.

    However, China did participate in the UN Security Council sanctions resolution, as China’s vote is needed to pass any resolution (it is one of the five permanent members of the body). China has also warned its neighbor of being prudent acting “through dialogue and consultation”.

    The reason for this is two-fold. On the one hand, this is a political blow to China as well, as the country’s nuclear arsenal gave it the hard power it needed to be a top country in the region and to be able to contend with its neighbor Russia. On the other hand, while there is a communist system in place in China, it is a far more modernized one than in North Korea. China has slowly and prudently been integrating itself into the world economy and has learned the necessity to use soft power. It is Joseph S. Nye who presented this idea that in the contemporary world, that is no longer a bipolar system of East vs. West, it is the soft power resources that are necessary for success in world politics. (Cf: Nye, Joseph S. Soft Power. New York: Public Affairs, 2004.)

    China would like to see more soft power from its neighbor because using old-school hard power techniques today is not something that can lead to much success, if there is no soft power involved. In fact, in many ways, hard power is outdated and no longer as significant.

    In the end, these nuclear weapons are a double-edged sword for North Korea. They may lead to productive negotiations, if the leadership acts right. Or they may just confirm the notion of North Korea as a “rogue state” and impoverish any soft power that the country had, and it pretty much had none to begin with. In that sense, the recent statements of the UNSC resolution being seen as a “threat of a war” are simply counter-productive. Although they are temporary mobilizers of support for the country’s leadership.

    So China is still with North Korea, but prudently so.

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