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'We need an entirely new strategy'

Interview: Esther Felden / sriSeptember 9, 2016

Repeated sanctions and warnings have been unable to deter North Korea from pursuing its nuclear weapons program. East Asia expert Rüdiger Frank tells DW that the international community has totally failed on this front.

Nordkorea Pyongyang - Nordkoreanische Staatsfernsehen berichtet über Atomtest
Image: picture-alliance/Kyodo

North Korea conducted its fifth and biggest nuclear test on Friday, September 9, and said it had mastered the ability to mount a warhead on a ballistic missile, ratcheting up a threat that its rivals and the United Nations have so far been powerless to deal with.

The United Nations Security Council is holding a closed-door meeting on Friday afternoon to discuss the North's nuclear test, diplomats said, at the request of the United States, Japan and South Korea.

In a DW interview, Rüdiger Frank talks about the latest nuclear test and the strategy the international community should adopt to dissuade Pyongyang from pursuing its controversial nuclear weapons program.

DW: How do you view the latest nuclear test conducted by Pyongyang?

Rüdiger Frank: Initial reports from both within and outside North Korea suggest that it was the most powerful and largest nuclear test ever conducted by the North. But a detailed technical analysis has to be done to verify Pyongyang's claims. Still, the fact remains that the North has been continuously advancing towards developing operational nuclear weapons.

Rüdiger Frank
Frank: 'If we stick to our present policies, then we shouldn't be surprised when the North conducts its tests in the future'Image: Privat

The new dimension here is that the North has been able to conduct two nuclear tests within one year. It was not the case previously when there had always been a break of about three years in between tests.

What does it say about the country's nuclear capabilities?

The latest test shows that the North apparently has enough fissile material, erasing doubts raised by some about whether or not the communist country has enough enriched uranium or plutonium to sustain its nuclear program.

One might also conclude that Pyongyang is making progress on the nuclear front, reflected in the increasing frequency of the tests. But it is too early to come to that conclusion solely on the basis of the recent test. Basically, the developments so far only paint a certain picture of continuity.

How does this test affect the already tense situation on the Korean peninsula?

I believe there will be the usual set of responses to the blast, which was the North's fifth nuclear test. The familiar reaction includes: condemnations, stricter sanctions and calls for calm from China.

But I am mostly concerned that all actors involved would get used to it in such a way that at some point they would just start to ignore Pyongyang's actions with a shrug.

Then what should the international community do to stop Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program?

We see very clearly that the international efforts to dissuade the North from developing nuclear weapons have been a colossal failure. This has happened despite the ever-tightening diplomatic and economic sanctions, which have affected the North's entire foreign trade, including its commerce with China.

Still, North Korea has continued to press ahead. In this context, one can only conclude that there needs to be a change in the current strategy towards North Korea which has obviously failed.

But if we stick to our present policies, then we shouldn't be surprised when the North conducts its tests in the future while simultaneously marching towards developing functional nuclear missiles.

What should this change in strategy look like?

This is relatively easy. We have examples of countries that have nuclear weapons with which we do not necessarily agree but nevertheless we have found ways to deal with them and maintain a satisfactory relationship. We also have countries like Pakistan - which is plagued with domestic strife and has a conflict with India - with which we have developed a form of modus vivendi, but the first thing to do is to recognize that a problem exists.

Until now, almost all countries – barring a few exceptions – have refused to recognize North Korea as a nuclear state. In my view, it's a serious mistake. Although we may not like it, we have to acknowledge that it's a nuclear power and then consider what to do next.

North Korea fires three ballistic missiles

The next step would entail tackling the issue of non-proliferation, to ensure that North Korea's nuclear weapons and related technologies remain safe and secure in the country. Pyongyang is ready to do that and there are also international treaties and agreements governing these issues. But beyond the negotiations, we have to make sure that the North actually accedes to them.

The next question is the issue of nuclear safety, as when a country maintains such a weapons program, there's always a possibility of something going wrong. Therefore, there needs to be clarity on what the North actually has.

I believe they will be open to showing what they've got as it might reveal their capabilities and act as a deterrent. This means a return to inspections conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Of course, one must also realize that such inspections cannot only go in one direction. They shouldn't be intended as a punitive measure against North Korea, but rather recognize the country as a nuclear power. That means North Koreans could also visit nuclear power states like France or the US and see their nuclear weapons. For many, this will be a bitter pill to swallow, but still it's possible.

And finally, there is a need to reach an international agreement aimed at freezing the North's nuclear program at a certain level, and preventing it from producing nuclear warheads in increasing numbers. Such a deal is conceivable, although it will be a tough task, both in terms of marketing this idea as well as its actual implementation. But I believe it's the only way forward as condemnations and sanctions haven't been able to bring about the desired effect.

So in your view, bringing back North Korea to the negotiating table is a precondition to resolving the current tense situation?

That's how it appears. It also requires us to first recognize North Korea as a state. It's a complicated story. That's why I believe we need an entirely new strategy, but I am afraid it will not happen. I think we will continue to hope that the problem will be solved by North Korea's implosion. But it must be reminded that many have been hoping for it since 1990 and nothing of that sort has happened.

I wouldn't rule it out but I think it's a risky gamble to solely hope for such an implosion and not have any proper strategy in place. I would rather see a change in strategy, but I am very pessimistic that the international community is able to get its act together.

Rüdiger Frank is a professor for East Asian Studies at the University of Vienna. He works also as adjunct professor at Korea University as well as the University of North Korean Studies (Kyungnam University) in Seoul.