So it looks like North Korea is getting ready for a nuclear test, and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, is now warning of serious consequences if North Korea goes ahead with the test.
What, I wondered, might those consequences be? I went and asked one of my colleagues about the situation, and he said that a nuclear test would probably lead to “discussion” of North Korea in the Security Council, possibly leading to sanctions.
The good in this is that no one seems to be talking about launching military strikes against North Korea, as people do rather casually about Iran. Any military action against North Korea can be expected to trigger massive retaliation against South Korea, not to mention Japan and possibly even China, all of whose capitals are within range of North Korea’s missiles. As such, the only conceivable justification for an attack on North Korea would be a North Korean attack on someone else. This is a nightmare scenario to be avoided by pretty much any means possible.
Short of war, then, what can the world do? Talk tough and impose sanctions. North Korea doesn’t have much to lose economically — it’s hard to get much poorer than starving — but it does rely on China for fuel, and without that, it’s not clear how long the regime could keep going. That’s something that could actually scare Pyongyang. The problem, of course, is that no one knows what happens next if the regime does indeed collapse.
The best hope for all involved is that the threat of sanctions brings North Korea back to the negotiating table, and that indeed may be what all this fuss is about in the first place. At the same time that it’s preparing for a nuclear test, North Korea is also saying it would like to talk. Kim Jong-il seems to enjoy escalating crises before stepping back, so we’ll see.
My colleague told me that June is the critical month, because June will mark one year since the North Koreans pulled out of the Six-Party Talks. So if there is no nuclear test now, watch to see what happens then.