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Questions sparked by last week’s U.S.-North Korea-China summit in Beijing are both simple and clear: Does North Korea have nuclear weapons?

And is Kim Jong Il’s totalitarian regime willing to detonate one to prove it?

For the more than 38,000 U.S. servicemembers on the Korean peninsula — as well as another 35,000 troops and families on mainland Japan — those questions are of far more than academic interest.

It’s the answers that quickly get fuzzy.

Experts on North Korea and defense differ on whether the communist state actually has one or more nuclear bombs and whether — as hinted strongly at last week’s Beijing summit — it actually would detonate one.

North Korean officials, media reports said, depicted Pyongyang as saying it would “prove” it has nuclear weapons soon — wording suggesting it may carry out a nuclear test.

Li Gun, deputy director general of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s American Affairs Bureau, made the remarks on the first day of last week’s talks in Beijing among the United States, North Korea and China. He made the statement to James Kelly, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

But some observers in Asia dispute North Korea’s contention.

“There is a great possibility that [North Korea] does not possess nuclear weapons,” said Toshimitsu Shigemura, professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Takushoku University.

“It’s possible for North Korea to make an explosive device,” he said, “but they do not have the capability to make a small-size weapon.”

At a Washington briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that North Korean claims of possessing a weapon, if they prove true, “would not come as any great surprise.”

“We have certainly said for many years now that we thought North Korea had nuclear weapons.”

Shigemura believes North Korea had several reasons for playing its nuclear card.

Pyongyang “ran out of diplomatic cards,” he said. “North Korea thought they will be attacked after Iraq. To prevent it from happening, they thought if they say they possessed nuclear weapons, they will not be attacked.”

If North Korea joins the select nuclear club — nations with nuclear weapons — it could have a destabilizing effect for its neighbors, said John Pike, director of the Washington-based GlobalSecurity.org.

“Japan will have great difficulty avoiding exercising its nuclear option and could become a nuclear-weapons state within a few months of taking this decision,” Pike said in an e-mail interview with Stars and Stripes. “There will be some sort of ripple effect including South Korea, Taiwan, India, Pakistan and China.”

Other observers, however, believe North Korea may test a weapon in due time.

“If North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, a test will be conducted to make it clear they possess nuclear weapons,” said Tetsuo Maeda, a military expert at Tokyo International University in Saitama Prefecture. “This message seems to be a political message in response to U.S. intimidation.”

Maeda noted that North Korea has been at war since 1953. It never signed the armistice ending hostilities between it and South Korea, opting instead to honor the cease-fire.

That North Korea cannot win the decades-old conflict is clear, Maeda said. Still, it is trying every possible way “to keep it from losing” — and telling the United States that it possesses a nuclear weapon is one route.

“It is feeling a sense of crisis,” he said. “It is like the saying: A stag at bay is a dangerous foe.”

Pike said he believes North Korea’s leaders have decided their only hope of avoiding a regime change is to become an overt nuclear-weapons state.

“That way, they can ride out the political consequences the same way that India and Pakistan did,” Pike said.

He also predicted how to tell when a weapons test — if Pyongyang indeed has a nuclear device — might be imminent: as soon as North Korea decides “that no negotiated agreement is possible between Washington and Pyongyang without a leadership change in at least one city.”

“It is entirely plausible that they would conduct an above-ground nuclear test to demonstrate that they were a nuclear power,” he said.

Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Washington think tank Brookings Institution, doesn’t believe North Korea will stage a nuclear test.

“They don’t have enough plutonium to waste and can’t take the risk the bomb might be a dud,” he said. “Plus, it would go too far to benefit them diplomatically in any way I can see.”

Furthermore, O’Hanlon said, North Korea may be backing off its weapons test threat — “or perhaps we misinterpreted it to begin with.”

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