The Start of An Asian Nuclear Arms Race? North Korea Tests First Nuclear Weapon

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North Korea says it has carried out its first-ever test of a nuclear weapon, sparking a wave of condemnation from the international community. We talk to independent journalist Tim Shorrock, who has covered U.S.-Korean relations for over 20 years. [includes rush transcript]

The apparent test was conducted at 10:36 a.m on Monday morning. A senior U.S. official said China was given a 20-minute warning ahead of the test and in turn told the United States, Japan and South Korea about getting the advance notice. The US Geological Survey said it detected a tremor of 4.2 magnitude on the Korean Peninsula.

Minutes later, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency declared the underground test a triumph and had not resulted in any leak of radiation. The agency called it “a historical event that has brought our military and our people huge joy.”

The move drew strong international condemnation. The U.S. said the reported test was a “provocative act.” China expressed its “resolute opposition” to the test and said it “defied the universal opposition of international society.” Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the claimed test “unpardonable” and said the region was “entering a new, dangerous nuclear age”. South Korea’s military ordered the army to step up a state of alert.

The U.N. Security Council urged North Korea last week not to carry out a test, warning of unspecified consequences if it did. Pyongyang pulled out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and has refused for a year to attend talks aimed at ending its nuclear ambitions.

Today’s test appeared linked to the ninth anniversary of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s appointment as head of the Korean Workers” Party. And it came just one day before South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon will face a vote on his bid to become the next secretary general of the United Nations.

  • Tim Shorrock, independent journalist who has covered U.S.-Korean relations for over 20 years. His reports have appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones and Harpers.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Shorrock is an independent journalist who has covered U.S.-Korean relations for decades. He joins me on the phone from his home in Tennessee. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tim.

TIM SHORROCK: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of this reported test?

TIM SHORROCK: Well, this is a monumental event for Korea, for the United States, for all the countries in that region of the world, but it’s something that I don’t think anyone is surprised at really. This has been — North Korea has been saying for years it’s on the road to developing nuclear weapons, and it’s tried desperately to use this, its possession of plutonium and then weapons, as a way to get bilateral talks with the United States to create a new relationship, they say, with the United States. Two years ago, they brought in a set of, a group of U.S. scientists, and they actually showed them, you know, that they had made plutonium. So, we know they’ve been on the road toward weaponry, and they have finally done it. This makes North Korea the eighth nuclear power in the world, which is a major development, particularly in a part of the world, the only place where nuclear weapons have ever been dropped in a war.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there any reason to believe that this actually might not have happened?

TIM SHORROCK: Well, yes, I think that for — like I said, the North Koreans have been demanding, jumping up and down, screaming they want bilateral talks with the United States. The Bush administration, from the get-go of this — of Bush’s term has refused to talk with North Korea. At the beginning of the Bush administration, I think the idea was, North Korea would kind of go away, would collapse of its own weight. People might remember that when the former president of South Korea, Kim Dae-Jung, longtime dissident who became the South Korean president in the late ’90s and opened up really the first economic and political relationship between South and North Korea that had ever existed since the Korean War, when Kim Dae-Jung came to the White House soon after Bush was sworn in, Bush publicly repudiated his policies, the so-called Sunshine Policies, said North Korea is not to be trusted. And from that moment on, relations have deteriorated.

Shortly after 9/11, the North Koreans decided to scrap their earlier agreement with the United States and started proceeding on this road, always saying they want to have discussions with the United States, bilateral talks. But this has been something that Bush has just simply refused to do.

AMY GOODMAN: The essential difference between how President Clinton has dealt with North Korea and President Bush has?

TIM SHORROCK: Well, the Clinton administration agreed to negotiate directly with the government. In 2000, the end of 2000, shortly before the change in the administrations, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright was in Pyongyang, North Korea. She actually met with the president of North Korea. At that time, the North Koreans and the United States had an agreement under which North Korea would suspend its nuclear program in return for economic assistance and a better relationship with the United States. And when Albright was in Pyongyang on that visit, there was discussions toward an agreement that would stop North Korea’s testing and manufacturing of missiles. And those negotiations were stopped cold when Bush came in, and he has consistently — his administration has refused to have any direct negotiations with the North Koreans.

And all the countries that are part of these six-party talks — Russia, China, Japan, particularly Russia and China and South Korea, of course — have been all the time saying, “There must be direct talks. Please have direct talks.” This is the only way to resolve this, because the North sees the conflict, not with other countries, but directly with the United States. And they see their survival at stake, and they see nuclear weapons as the only way to guarantee their survival.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very interesting that this should come at a time where the U.S. has upped the pressure on, well, not North Korea, but on Iran. So the place that doesn’t have nuclear weapons, they have been focusing the most attention on, when all indications were, this is the path that North Korea was on.

TIM SHORROCK: Yeah, it is. And I think that — I mean, all this time, there has been, of course, planning and background discussions, but the Bush administration has been very deliberate about keeping this, you know, out of the headlines, sort of de-emphasizing what’s been going on there, because of it’s so wrapped up in Iraq and then planning for whatever it’s going to do in Iran. And I think that that’s been — this is a serious mistake. This shows the complete failure of Bush’s policies in Northeast Asia.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Shorrock, let’s talk about China and Japan. It was China that alerted the United States once North Korea told China that it was about to test this nuclear bomb yesterday.

TIM SHORROCK: Right. Well, the U.S. has been counting on China to sort of, you know, curtail whatever North Korea is doing, put the pressure on North Korea. North Korea and China are very close allies. During the Korean War, the Chinese entered the war to prevent the United States from basically occupying and taking control of all of Korea. They pushed the United States back to the 38th parallel. They lost millions of soldiers. That relationship is very strong and remains very strong. The Chinese are, of course, concerned about this, what would happen if North Korea got nuclear weapons, that Japan might obtain them afterwards and so on. And they put out a very strong statement today, critical of this test.

However, because of this relationship — and we have to remember that the same neo-cons who got us into Iraq and are pushing to get the United States involved in Iran, they see China as the strategic challenge, i.e., the real enemy, and there’s been this intense game in Asia for the last five or ten years between the Chinese and the United States for influence. And you sort of have China, you know, not directly allied, but sort of in the same circles now economically and politically, surprisingly, with South Korea, with North Korea. Even a lot of Southeast Asian nations have developed close ties with China. And then, on the other hand, you have the U.S. and Japan building up their militaries together in the ways that are trying to counter China. And so, there is this whole dynamic of the Chinese also being concerned about challenges to them and seeing North Korea as an ally in this fight.

There’s a very interesting piece that’s been quoted widely today that was written by a scholar in China called Shen Dingli that lays out China’s ties with North Korea and why a nuclear test would serve the interests of North Korea and might actually serve the interests of China. This person argues that basically North Korea has forced the United States to put thousands of troops and missiles and other forces in South Korea in the sort of northeast part of China, which means that they are not focusing so much force near Taiwan, and that’s good for China in the long run. So I think it’s going to be very difficult to get China to actually, you know, reject everything with its relationship with North Korea and turn against them.

So it’s going to be an interesting period over the next few days and weeks to see how this happens, because I don’t think you’re really going to get China to make North Korea into an enemy and allow — they may go along with some kind of economic sanctions, but beyond that, I really doubt that they would be in favor of using force or, you know, naval blockades and things like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Shorrock, finally — and we just have 30 seconds — this happening the day before what’s happening today, the South Korean foreign minister, Ban Ki-Moon, being voted on for his bid for the next secretary-general of the United Nations. That’s happening today.

TIM SHORROCK: Well, let’s remember, the last time when they tested missiles was on July 4, so they know the symbolic timing of this, and it’s also interesting that the Japanese Prime Minister Abe is in Seoul the same day. And, you know, I think Japan’s role here is also very critical. Abe’s predecessor, after all, had enraged China, enraged South Korea and many other countries by visiting the shrine where the Japanese war criminals are buried. And I think Japanese ties with China and the Koreas are very tenuous because of this. So this is not a good time to have a large U.S.-led alliance against North Korea. It’s going to take some time. But I think the only thing that’s going to stop this from becoming a full-blown crisis is for the United States to have direct talks with North Korea.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Shorrock, I want to thank you very much for being with us, independent journalist who has covered U.S.-Korean relations for over 20 years, lived in Korea for years, as well. His reports have appeared in The Nation and Mother Jones and Harper’s magazine.

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