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Nuclear Non-Proliferation in the Media: North Korea’s Nuclear Test

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We are going to discuss North Korea’s recent nuclear test, but first — there’s rarely time for history lessons in daily news, but North Korea’s recent past has relevance today. Can you offer a brief rundown on North Korea since it joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty?

In the late 80s North Korea joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, agreeing to put all their facilities under safeguard and allowing the IAEA to inspect them all the time. It took the North Koreans four years. Once they finally worked out an agreement, the inspectors immediately discovered that the North Koreans had taken some of their spent fuel and extracted plutonium for bombs. This created the first nuclear crisis, which almost resulted in a war with the Clinton administration. Instead, talks resulted in an Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s nuclear program. Under the Agreed Framework, North Koreans took all their spent fuel that they could potentially use to make plutonium [which was 8,000 canisters] and hid them underground under seal [scheduled to be removed from the country later].

But the Agreed Framework fell apart in 2002 before the [plutonium] was taken out of the country, which meant that North Korea could throw out the IAEA, take off the seals, pull the stuff out of the ground, and start processing it to create plutonium, which is what they did.

In the wake of North Korea’s nuclear tests this fall, you were approached by a lot of news people. What were the main questions you were asked on air?

DR. WADE L. HUNTLEY is the Program Director at the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Research, in the Liu Institute for Global Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. Previously he was Associate Professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute in Hiroshima, Japan, and Director of the Global Peace and Security Program at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development in Berkeley, California. He received his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley Department of Political Science in 1993, has taught at several universities, and has published work on US strategic policies, East and South Asian regional security, and international relations theory.

I would say three things. Number one: ‘Was it really a nuclear test?’ — bearing in mind that in the aftermath that was unclear. Number two:, ‘Should we be worried?’ and number three: ‘What’s the solution?’

Were those the issues that most concerned you?

Yes and no. With respect to the first question, the only reason people suspected it wasn’t a test was because the yield was so small. What I thought was, if you’re going to simulate a nuclear test with a conventional bomb, why on earth would you simulate a failure? It’s not as though they don’t know how to pack enough explosives in a cave to make a big enough bomb. And now there’s no question.

Number two was ‘Should we be worried?’

That is the appropriate question in the larger sense, but I had an answer to that that people didn’t expect: The nuclear test didn’t make any difference whatsoever.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but we have no more to fear about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities now than we did before the test. As a matter of fact, the nuclear test, to a certain degree, gives us a basis to be less worried – not only because it failed but because, and this is something that the media hasn’t really covered much, the test released a lot of forensic data as to the nature of the explosion: what materials went into it, how good it is, how efficient, how far along they are. That information will do one of two things: it will relieve them to learn that North Korea isn’t very far along, or it will confirm that they’re far along, which will at least provide a more solid basis to know what’s going on. So either way it improves the position of the West vis-à-vis North Korea, because North Korea benefits if they can keep the West in the dark.

But, in the larger sense, should we be worried?

Yes, because we should have been worried all along.

The third question was “What’s the solution?”

This is what average people want to know. Prior to the collapse of the Agreed Framework, policy debates essentially revolved around two positions, one favouring confrontation and the other favouring engagement. The most thoughtful people felt that a combination of both was absolutely necessary. It was referred to as “carrots and sticks.”

The difference between now and four years ago, caused by the breakdown of the Agreed Framework, culminating in the nuclear test, is that North Korea is no longer a country with a potential to become a nuclear state – it is a nuclear weapons state. It has demonstrably got on [nuclear weapon], at least. The nuclear issue itself is no longer a discrete problem, and I now feel that even a clever combination of carrots and sticks will no longer be enough.

Now, the only way [of rolling back North Korea’s nuclear problem] is by understanding that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are embedded in a larger fabric of relations in the region that involve not just security but a lot of political, identity, and nation-building dimensions. And in that sense, what the Americans do doesn’t really matter, since we know what they’re going to do. What really matters is what China does.

What does China have to do with this?

They’re concerned about the long-term viability of a government whose legitimacy might easily be challenged in the future, a government whose stability is unclear, a government that is obviously not working by the standard metrics of economic performance -– feeding your people, things like this. And in particular the Chinese have long been annoyed that the North Koreans have not gone further down the road that they themselves have pioneered toward economic reform.

China cares because they don’t want this huge mess to spill over into their country, which has already happened as a matter of fact. There are estimates ranging between 50,000 and 500,000 refugees in Northeast China from North Korea, and this is already a big problem for them, but if the regime collapsed, refugees would flood across the Yalu [Amrok] River.

But if the regime collapses in the context of a war, the Chinese would have to worry about war spilling over their border. They’d have to worry about possibility intervening themselves, like they did in the first Korean War. They would have to worry about the possibility of coming into a military engagement with the United States, in a context in which the United States has thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at them.

North Korea only rarely makes headlines. When it does, do the stories appropriately address the situation there?

No. But I wouldn’t necessarily blame the media for this. North Korea is an incredibly closed society. They don’t let anybody in, so it’s extremely hard to get information about what’s going on in there. If there’s malnourishment in Africa, it usually strikes powerfully and dramatically, and you get babies with distended bellies and flies in their eyes, and you get cameras in there and it goes out to TV. In North Korea you never see it, in part because it’s not that kind of dramatic short-term thing. It’s a longer term malnourishment that has resulted in an entire generation of North Koreans stunted physically and mentally. The statistics, for example, in bodyweight and height between the North and the South now are dramatic. The statistics on IQ would be dramatic if we had them. We don’t. But the media itself feeds on its own drama, and if you don’t have the pictures, then you don’t make it at all in the popular media and the daily news.

What does end up in the media, if not the human rights crisis and the political complexities? I’m thinking particularly of Kim Jong Il’s media image.

Every time you see reported the information about how he is a movie buff and how he kidnapped a director from South Korea to make movies about himself and how he’s had this parade of young women – those stories create the notion that he’s this crazy, megalomaniacal throwback to a bygone era of royal self-indulgence. It creates a vast misconception of what’s going on in that government, particularly on two matters. One is Kim Jong Il’s character. He may be eccentric, but he’s not stupid. He’s very clever, in many ways more clever than the people he’s up against. And number two, the notion that he controls everything, which he does not.

North Korea has a complicated political system. It’s small, but it is really opaque, even to the people inside it. It has domestic politics, but by a completely different set of rules. There are people in power, and they’re machinating against each other, and Kim Jong Il sits on top of this volatile heap of backstabbing humanity, always concerned that somebody is going to come along and knock him off and take over the whole thing. One of his principle concerns is to stay in power himself. I would imagine he’s worried about that every day.

With all the history, how could the media boil it down for the public?

People disagree on how to reach the essence of what it all means, in a pithy concise way. If you talk to somebody in Washington they would point immediately to the nuclear issue and say these people with a nuclear bomb are dangerous. If you asked people in China, they would come up with a different set of criteria.

Would it be manageable to triangulate between China’s approach to North Korea and North America’s? Do media do it?

I did not see that in my personal experiences. These were one to three minute interviews where I was talking to folks in Saskatchewan eating dinner. They’re not going to sit there for an hour and listen to the inner machinations of the regime in Pyongyang. They just wanted to know if these guys were going to launch a missile at them. And I told them that they weren’t. And that was it. So it has to do in part with what the media is trying to do. Is it really their job to do that?

Who else’s job is it?

Let’s say, for example, our leaders. Lets say, for example, our government, which actually has the capacity to do something about it. Maybe they’re the ones that ought to be really thinking about it.

But what if the media is supposed to link the public to their leaders?

If that’s the case, then it is the responsibility of the media to tell its people that its government is failing to solve the problem. This is why the media comes to people like me, who aren’t on one side or the other but are trying to say something about the issue that transcends political debate. Does that go far enough to motivate the people to push their governments to do better? I don’t know.

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February 10th, 2020 at 12:05 am

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