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The Nuclear Rationale

A Commentary on North Korea’s Third Nuclear Test

Eric J. Ballbach

After several weeks of speculation and despite and against all international warnings, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test on February 12, 2013. The North’s central news agency (KCNA) stated that the atomic weapon test was a response to the international sanctions following the launch of the Unha-3 rocket on Dec. 12, a measure described as an infringement on the country’s sovereignty. It said the test will bolster the country's defense against security threats from abroad. The report added that the latest nuclear test will ensure peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the surrounding region. Immediately after the test, large parts of theinternational community condemned the measure as provocative, threatening and a violation of the country’s international obligations. South Korea’s government issued a statement, in which the test was described as violating past U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolutions and that it would pose an “unacceptable threat” to peace and stability in the region and a “head-on challenge to the international community”. According to the statement released Tuesday, “North Korea won't be able to avoid grave responsibility”, noting that South Korea will try to take every possible measure to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs. Similarly, U.S. President Barack Obama declared North Korea’s nuclear test a “threat to world peace” and a “highly provocative act” with which North Korea breached its international obligations. What these statements make clear is that despite a great deal of attention paid to the nuclear issue by the media and the international community, North Korea’s motives to go nuclear and the concomitant foreign policy of P’yŏngyang – often deemed unpredictable or even irrational – still mystifies international observers. While it is too early to assess the long-term ramifications of the latest developments, both the test itself and the reaction of the international community reveal several significant points from which a number of important inferences with immediate political implications may be drawn:
  • It has become highly unlikely that North Korea will entirely abandon its nuclear power.
  • Though North Korean foreign policy follows a different logic than it does in other, especially Western countries, it is inherently rational.
  • The nuclear issue, which has become a central ‘identity project’ of and for the North, is more a political than it is a military problem for the international community.
  • Sanctions alone do not work.

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