Responding to North Korea’s Fourth Nuclear Test

Tonight’s PBS Newshour covered North Korea’s fourth nuclear test that occurred earlier today. Wendy Sherman, former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and advisor to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, called for further sanctions “to ensure that we not allow North Korea to blackmail the international community, but that we take resolute action to tell them, this is not acceptable.” The only problem with her call to action is that it is more of the same that has gotten us nowhere good over the last thirteen years.

The other guest on the show, former Director of Los Alamos, Siegfried Hecker (now my colleague at Stanford) pointed out that problem in his response to the host’s question: “Everyone, as Wendy Sherman has pointed out, is calling for resolute action … What difference does that make for a rogue state like North Korea?” Here’s his answer (emphasis added):

Quite frankly, I think none – because we’ve been through this at least since 2003, or so, when North Korea pulled out of the Nonproliferation Treaty, and the attempts, not only by the United States, but by the international community, has been in essence to threaten North Korea, to sanction North Korea, to isolate North Korea, and it simply hasn’t worked. I think we failed to engage North Korea appropriately when we had opportunities in these last twelve or thirteen years – whatever engagement was there didn’t work. The bottom line is, over this time, from 2003, when they most likely built their first primitive device, which they tested in 2006, until today, they have gone from building a device in 2003, testing one that didn’t work so well in 2006, to just now, where they have the fourth test – a successful test – and in the meantime, at the same time, they have scaled up their ability to make more bombs. And so, where we used to have the problem of having this country that could perhaps build a simple nuclear device, today they appear to have a nuclear arsenal. That’s a great concern and to me that means that we have to do something different than was done over the last twelve years.

Hecker, who has been to North Korea seven times on “track two” diplomatic missions has been saying similar things for years. For example, in a 2010 paper: “Pyongyang was willing to slow its drive for nuclear weapons only when it believed the fundamental relationship with the United States was improving, but not when the regime was threatened.”

Our use of economic sanctions against North Korea is usually portrayed in terms of our efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. But, if we were to be honest with ourselves, we’d admit that underneath that socially acceptable veneer we hope that government will implode and produce regime change. A page 1 story in Thursday’s (7 January) New York Times brings  that into clearer focus when it said (emphasis added):

The United Nations Security Council condemned North Korea for its nuclear test on Wednesday, but there was no evidence yet that the North’s most powerful backer, China, was willing to stiffen sanctions in a way that could push the unpredictable country to the point of collapse or slow its nuclear progress.

We need to deal with reality, not how we’d like things to be. And the reality is, so long as North Korea feels threatened by us, not only will it not give up its nuclear weapons program (as Gaddafi did to his great harm), but it will build an ever larger arsenal. As distasteful as the Kim Jong-un regime is, we need to learn how to live with it, rather than continue vainly trying to make it collapse. As Dr. Hecker points out, that latter approach has given us an unstable nation with a nuclear arsenal.

Insanity has been defined as repeating the same mistake over and over again, but expecting a different outcome. Isn’t it time we tried a new experiment?

If you agree that these ideas need to be more widely disseminated, please consider sharing this post via social media. Thank you!

Martin Hellman

For more thoughts on North Korea, enter that term in the search box near the top right corner of this page. Also see my seminar notes on North Korea.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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