Today's date:
Summer 2009

Time to Test North Korea

John Bolton, a leading neo-conservative official during the Bush administration, is a former US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs and former US ambassador to the United Nations. His latest book is Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the UN and Abroad. He spoke to NPQ's Global Viewpoint Network just after North Korea's nuclear test in late May.

NPQ | Five days before the North Korean nuclear test, you wrote a prescient article in The Wall Street Journal saying that such a test was imminent. What did you see as North Korea's motive in testing at this time?

John Bolton | The North Koreans had a nuclear test in October, 2006, that was widely regarded as not entirely successful. So they had to redesign their warhead and test the new one to make sure they corrected whatever the problems had been.

What they needed was the opportunity to conduct the second test in a way that wouldn't be too politically costly. They waited out the election to see if Barack Obama would come to power and then assess how he might perform. Their conclusion, apparently, was that they could undertake a new test in the wake of his election with minimal risk that there would be any consequences.

So far, their assessment seems to be correct. Certainly, there was a very ineffective response from the Obama administration to their Taepodong missile test several weeks prior to the nuclear test.

Now, what is the administration saying so far after this test? It continues to say it wants North Korea to return to the six-party talks (South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, North Korea and the United States)! Sorry to say, that is just not something that weighs very heavily on the North Koreans.

NPQ | So, the six-party talks are a dead end?

Bolton | Yes. I don't think the North Koreans have any intention of negotiating away their nuclear weapons capability. If there was any doubt about that, this nuclear test surely puts that to rest. Where is the evidence? All they do is keep processing, testing and firing missiles while everyone else talks.

NPQ | The Chinese and the Russians both hastily and harshly condemned the nuclear test. Does that make any difference?

Bolton | Well, they condemned the first test in 2006. They condemned the rocket launches in July, 2006, as well as the more recent ones. And they even agreed in the Security Council then to some pretty tough military sanctions—in United Nations Resolution 1718—but when all was said and done the Bush administration allowed those sanctions to fall into disuse as they changed course and pressed for a new round of negotiations with North Korea, and the Chinese didn't enforce them.

If this past experience is any indication, the actions of the Security Council now don't look promising. We'll see if this time is any different.

NPQ | What would be an effective response to North Korea this time around?

Bolton | The fact that South Korea has declared now it will join the Proliferation Security Initiative—which would allow for searches of suspect North Korean ships at sea—is a significant step forward. We ought to do whatever we can under PSI to interdict exports or imports related to weapons of mass-destruction development.

We should limit North Korea's access to international financial markets. The Bush administration went down that path and it was effective, before it changed course and gave way. We need to go back to that.

We should put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. We never should have taken it off.

We should expel North Korea from the UN, since it has no intention of abiding by its rules and resolutions.

Finally, pressure must be brought on China, which has unique leverage over North Korea since it supplies more than 80 percent of its energy as well as significant amounts of food. If China is serious that it doesn't want a North Asia with nuclear weapons—where Japan and possibly South Korea and Taiwan seek their own deterrents—then it should do something about North Korea now.

NPQ | If the Chinese are serious, why are they hesitant to put real pressure on North Korea?

Bolton | I take them at their word that they don't want a nuclear North Korea. They agree with the US on that. Where they disagree with the US is they are afraid to do anything that would bring down the Kim Jong-il regime. In my view, the Chinese should rethink this. It is not in their interest to keep this regime in power if it is going to pursue nuclear weapons.

The current North Korean regime sees nuclear weapons as its trump card, the symbol and guarantor of its power within the country. It is not going to give that up voluntarily. That is the dilemma of China's position.

NPQ | The North Koreans have said that interdicting any of their ships under the PSI, especially by South Korea, would be an act of war, and they would respond in kind by attacking the South. Does that scenario of military confrontation worry you?

Bolton | We should not be intimidated by their rhetoric. I was the lead US negotiator on PSI in 2003. We very much wanted South Korea to join right then, but the government of South Korea at the time was intimidated by North Korea. When you give in to that kind of threat, you enable the very belligerent behavior we see today.

South Korea now has taken a very wise and courageous decision in joining PSI in the wake of this nuclear test. The world should support South Korea in this.

NPQ | In other words, North Korea has been testing the world for years. Now, perhaps, it is time for the world to test North Korea's intimidating rhetoric by pushing back?

Bolton | Yes. If we really want to stop North Korea from obtaining and spreading nuclear weapons, we are rapidly running out of time to do it. Now is the time to stop it. We should not accept that our options are limited.

NPQ | Japan is directly in the line of fire of any nuclear-armed missiles North Korea might develop. This test has made some Japanese leaders so anxious they are calling for a pre-emptive capability to strike North Korea first. What do you think of that?

Bolton | Japan will have to do what it has to do. This anxiety reflects a concern about whether the US nuclear umbrella over Japan is as strong as it used to be. I found it extraordinary that Secretary of State (Hilary) Clinton felt she had to publicly assure Japan of the US commitment to its security as this crisis has unfolded. Obviously, the Japanese are worried, and that message is getting through.

NPQ | What impact will this North Korean nuclear test—and the reaction to it—have on other would-be proliferators, such as Iran?

Bolton | The Iranians are watching this very carefully. If the US and the UN respond ineffectively, the Iranians will draw the conclusion that if North Korea can get away with it, then they can, too. The stakes are very high.