News is piling up right now about crunch time for the Iran nuclear talks; ISIS, Ebola, Russian warplanes buzzing NATO, and upheaval in Burkina Faso (where this week protesters set fire to the Ouagadougou parliament, the longtime president tweeted his resignation and fled the the country, the military stepped in, and fallout of the upheaval may entail problems for U.S. anti-terror operations in West Africa). What next?
Call me impulsive, but I had a twitch today that amid these crises, it’s about time for North Korea to throw its hat into the ring — with its next nuclear test.
No, I don’t have any inside information. Kim Jong Un does not have me on speed dial. But I have been wading through stacks of material on North Korea’s assorted bouts of nuclear talks and nuclear tests, missile programs, human rights violations, and the current North Korean “charm offensive” — in which North Korean diplomats have been lauding North Korea as a cornucopia of communal joys, while Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency has been promising that North Korea will “Mercilessly Shatter U.S. and Its Followers ‘Human Rights’ Campaign.”
And I got to wondering what had happened with that North Korean threat issued in March, when Pyongyang released a statement that it would not rule out “a new form of nuclear test.” Shortly after that, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations held a press conference in New York, at which he confirmed that there was another test in the offing. Asked what the “new form” might be, he said “Wait and see,”
Since then, as far as North Korean nuclear testing, it’s been all wait, and no see. Satellite photos of North Korea’s Punggye-ri test site this spring did show what appeared to be preparations for a fourth nuclear test (the previous three having been carried out in 2006, 2009 and 2013). Analysts say North Korea appears ready to carry out its next illicit nuclear detonation. There have also been signs that North Korea is expanding its uranium enrichment facilities. And last week the commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, General Curtis Scaparrotti, said at a press conference that he believes North Korea has the capability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead and the technology to deliver it on a missile.
All of which is dire. But most of the U.S. fuss over North Korea in recent times has centered on such dramas as Kim’s fit of avunculicide in late 2013, the imprisonment of American tourists, the mysterious disappearance and reappearance this fall of the limping young tyrant Kim, and the damning United Nations report accusing North Korea’s leadership of crimes against humanity, to which North Korea has been responding with the diplomatic and propaganda blitz now dubbed a charm offensive.
Meanwhile, one of North Korea’s longtime allies and major weapons customers in Middle East — Iran — has been cleaning up at the nuclear bargaining table, wresting time and concessions from the U.S. and its cohorts under an interim agreement, without yet reaching a grand and “permanent” deal, or genuinely giving up its routes to the bomb. Iran has obtained concessions that North Korea never got, including a de facto green light by the U.S. to enrich uranium — the point of contention being not whether there will be any enrichment at all, but how much. And Washington looks increasingly desperate. The U.S. news is flush with stories about the Obama administration’s ardent desire to conclude a deal with Iran, the coming U.S. “detente” with Iran, the White House gift to Iran of insults to Israel, and plans to run interference for Iran if Congress tries to get tough again on sanctions. All this, and Iran is positioned to pocket plenty, and carry on to get the bomb anyway.
Surely the totalitarian powers-that-be in North Korea might rationally harbor a certain feeling that they, too, are entitled to a piece of this action. The question would be how to get the full attention of a U.S. administration that has been fixated for some time now on talks with Iran. How better to shout, “What about us?” than to go ahead with that next nuclear test? It’s worked for North Korea before, when its 2006 nuclear test led to a frenzy of Six-Party talks that produced a nuclear deal just a few months later, in Feb., 2007 (North Korea pocketed the concessions, cheated, walked away at the end of 2008, and conducted its next nuclear test a few months after that).
Since then, the U.S. has become more wary of North Korea (with the exception of the lesser, so-called Leap Day deal, which collapsed almost immediately, in 2012). But Iran is setting an example right now that suggests the U.S. is back in the business, bigtime, of offering feckless nuclear deals at bargain prices. For another rogue state under sanctions for its nuclear program, why not join the queue? (For North Korea, there’s the two-fer that during rounds of nuclear bargaining, the U.S. is more apt to shrug off human rights atrocities, lest such humanitarian issues jeopardize the deal — or so the record shows.)
Whether North Korea might actually see it that way is, of course, a matter of sheer speculation. But here’s another possible reason why North Korea might soon go ahead with its next nuclear test. If an Iranian nuclear deal does emerge from the bargaining tables by the Nov. 24 deadline, or if the talks are again extended and drag on into 2015, it’s a good bet that Iran will seek ways to cheat. That would be entirely consistent with Tehran’s record of building secret nuclear installations, and creating global front networks to get around sanctions. One avenue for Iran would be to buy nuclear wares under the table from North Korea, already a longtime and well-documented source for Iran of missiles and missile technology. In which case, if North Korea does have something new and presumably better teed up for nuclear testing, then the actual test could double as a neat demonstration of the goods for prospective customers. A marketing move, if you like.
Just a guess, mind you. The mix of North Korea, Iran, nuclear talks, nuclear tests, Washington and the politics thereof, are part of a modern maelstrom with too many unknowns and inter-related variables to allow for neat calculation of a precise date. But my hunch is, it’s about time for the next one.