Kim Jong-il has delivered on his promise and dropped a bombshell on the international community by going nuclear. So how should the world respond?

The Nuclear Club welcomes… the Chairman of the National Defense Commission of North Korea, Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, and General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea. (Picture: Team America – World Police)

Crikey asked Ron Huisken, Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU, to assess how the key players will respond to the crisis:

AUSTRALIA: “Australia isn’t unique in that we have a relationship with North Korea, but we are in the minority,” says Huisken. “We don’t have an embassy in North Korea, but we do have an ambassador here … The government could be toying with the idea of severing the relationship, but my counsel would be no … Besides, Pyongyang wouldn’t even notice … Down the track when it’s more clear what kind of action the major parties are going to mount we can decide whether severing relationship … For now, the most realistic option would be to impose sanctions, although Australia’s current trade with North Korea is very modest indeed.”

UNITED STATES: “These guys have got a big problem,” says Huisken, “because they can never make up their mind where to go on this, they’ve gone the diplomacy route which got stronger after America got further mired in Iraq. But you can bet your boots that Bush has been briefed on all the options, including the military one … and there’d be an important voice or two saying we have to deal with this guy sooner or later … Certainly the more numerous would be saying we need another campaign like a hole in the head, and I’m pretty certain that counsel would prevail … But if North Korea does something truly stupid and scares the Americans by giving some of their bad stuff to even badder people … the US has an abundance of air power to make a point without having to launch a full scale invasion. It’s more likely that America would be leading on creative, political and economic sanctions, but it’s not about targeting the North Korean people. Normally if you hurt the general public’s economic prospects you can expect some feedback from the public to the government … but that’s not the case in North Korea. The public is destitute and have no means of conveying protest to the government. The next option is to make life as painful as possible for the leadership, both political and military … The US are already targeting the North Koreans’ illegal international transactions, including drugs and counterfeiting … North Korea also make money off the sale of gold and the sale of missiles, which would be shut down completely under new sanctions.” 

CHINA: “China will want to be seen to be participating in the design of the sanctions structure but they will then give North Korea the chance to respond and negotiate,” says Huisken. “There are big dilemmas for China, the consequences if things spiral out of control are acute. In China’s case they would experience a flood of refugees. Then they would have to stand by and watch things unfold quickly and abruptly in an uncontrolled way in Korea … their worst nightmare would be if the regime collapsed or if there were a conflict…”

JAPAN: “Japan, as well as China and South Korea, hasn’t really cooperated with the Americans freezing North Korea’s illegal drugs and counterfeiting operations,” says Huisken. “They want to keep the status quo as well, although they’re becoming increasingly hawkish on this. As for the possibility of an arms race being sparked by this development, it’s a long way down the track and very hard to call, but that would be a truly transformational change for East Asia … No one wants to see Japan begin to rethink its attitude to nuclear weapons because of North Korea’s nukes.. “

SOUTH KOREA: “If the tensions were to break out and to escalate, North Korea has thousands of artillery pieces and rockets, deployed within range of Seoul at this very moment,” says Huisken, “and they can hold half of South Korea’s population hostage and there’s nothing that US or South Korean forces can do about that …Then there’s the possibility of reunification if the regime implodes, and that’s the last thing South Korea wants. The South Koreans looked at the German example of the early 90s and decided they need reunification like a hole in the head, it looks like really bad news…”

The good news is that Kim Jong-il’s nuke test has united the key players for the first time in around five years. “You’ve got Washington, Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing very close to being on the same page,” says Huisken.  Funnily enough, that’s the opposite of Pyongyang’s golden rule – “never allow that to happen.”  

Peter Fray

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