Wrong-Headed Condemnation of North Korea

This week’s nuclear test may – strangely – represent a path to positive change

Let us welcome the North Korean nuclear test.

The outpouring of outrage from around the world, most of all from the US but also the broader United Nations, is the height of hypocrisy. The kneejerk response makes no effort to understand why the nuclear test is good for reform in that self-benighted country.

The current condemnation is plain hypocrisy in light of past tests by other countries. It seems to stem more from concerns about Iran's nuclear capability rather than real fears about North Korea's nuclear desires or any environmental hazards the test represents for other nations. The anti-Iran mania led by a US government in thrall to expansionist, nuclear-armed Israel demands the motions of outrage. That Iran has no record of expansionism but has been the victim of Western-backed Iraqi aggression, and previously Russian designs, is conveniently forgotten. Likewise the US and its allies paid only lip service to condemning Pakistan's test, despite the obvious reality that its internal problems easily make it the world's most dangerous nuclear power.

In this case it suits China and Russia to go along with the formal condemnation of Pyongyang but it is extremely unlikely that verbal criticism will translate into any meaningful moves to deprive the North of the food and fuel supplies it needs. Even South Korea is likely only to go through the motions of reprisals as new President Park Geun-hye and her administration seek a less confrontational approach than her predecessor, Lee Myung-Bak, and will want to test the depth of new policies being signaled by Kim Jong-un, the North's leader since last July.

It is as clear as ever that North Korea does not possess the ability to construct a weapon that can be carried on a missile. Besides, Pyongyang is driven more by defensive paranoia than any expectation that it could use such a weapon offensively without risking catastrophic retaliation.

The second reason for the program's existence and the main reason for the latest test is domestic politics. If Kim wishes to proceed with a very gradual opening up of society and the economy he must first secure the support of the military establishment and convince them that he is a nationalist created in the mold of his grandfather Kim Il Sung. The nuclear program may seem a colossal waste of money for a country still stalked by starvation but it could be cheap if it makes it easier for Kim to reduce spending on the rest of the armed forces and divert arms industries to civilian production.

It is premature to see Kim as Korea's version of Myanmar's President Thein Sein. Indeed given his self-conscious aping of his grandfather's manner, the regime may appear more reliant than ever on the dynastic principle. Nonetheless, almost everything he has done so far on the domestic front seems an improvement, however small, on the past. Even the economy is showing signs of life as non-state enterprises and the influence of cross-border transactions with China and to a lesser extent Russia, filter down.

Kim must be painfully aware, in a way his father Kim Jong-il was not, of how far behind the world his country has fallen. Taking power so young he may see the potential to gradually reform his suffering nation. Of course reform is a dangerous path in a nation so long subjected to brutal leadership. But with the optimism of youth and bolstered by his apparent ability to communicate well with people he may hope he can achieve this transformation. In any event it is an effort to be encouraged by engagement.

The price of a small underground nuclear test is a very small one to pay if helps create the conditions for domestic reform. Like the successful rocket launch, and even young Kim's marriage, it cements his rule. Given that the collapse of the Pyongyang regime is realistically just the pipedream of ideologues in the South and in Washington, strengthening Kim must be viewed as beneficial, at least in the medium term. If that proves an illusion, so be it. But encouraging change when there is no realistic alternative except even greater oppression must be the option now. The West failed in Iran by not engaging with President Khatami's reform administration. One result was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In Myanmar, the West showed greater wisdom, pushing the once unbending Aung San Suu Kyi to accept President Thein Sein's path to gradual change.

Hopefully, the condemnation of the nuclear test is just hot air that will not impede a flexible approach to the promise of change, however slow, in Pyongyang.

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