Analysis & Opinions - USA Today

Look at the Bright Side

| May 28, 2009

There's no need to treat N. Korean nuclear test as an existential crisis.

North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear weapons test on Monday, prompting President Obama and other world leaders to condemn Pyongyang's actions as reckless and to label North Korea's nuclear arsenal a grave threat to international peace and security. Lost amid the international condemnation is the good news to be found in North Korea's nuclear test.

Monday's test may, ironically, bring us closer to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

Despite the tests, it's extremely unlikely that North Korea would use its nuclear weapons against the U.S. or our allies. Officials in Pyongyang understand that a nuclear attack would be met with an overwhelming and devastating military response. Their desire to remain in power will keep their fingers off the nuclear trigger.

Others worry that North Korea, with its economy in shambles, will sell nuclear materials to earn hard currency. However, my research demonstrates that countries transfer nuclear technology for strategic, not economic, reasons. It is extremely unlikely, for example, that North Korea would sell nuclear technology to terrorists because of potentially devastating consequences. If the terrorists used those weapons on the U.S., it could spur massive retaliation against North Korea. The upside for the U.S.? It's much easier to deal with a country motivated by realpolitik than one blindly willing to trade away its security for a few bucks.

Also, Monday's test may not have been as successful as North Korea maintains. Seismic data suggest that the explosion was only slightly larger than the country's failed 2006 test.

North Korean scientists are still struggling with nuclear weapon designs.

The U.S. should not treat the North Korean nuclear test as an existential crisis at this point. If North Korea restarts its nuclear reactor, the U.S. should take strong action, possibly including the use of military force. For now, we can wait.

Each successive nuclear test in North Korea gives some small cause for celebration. After Monday's test, Pyongyang retains only enough plutonium to build six to ten nuclear weapons. If it keeps conducting nuclear tests, it soon won't have any left.

Matthew Kroenig is an assistant professor at Georgetown University and is affiliated with Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kroenig, Matthew.“Look at the Bright Side.” USA Today, May 28, 2009.

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