North Korea has confirmed that it conducted its fifth nuclear test on Friday (9 September) and the explosion was deemed to be 5.3 on the Richter scale. Based on preliminary data, experts aver that this could be a nuclear bomb in the 15 to 30 KT (kiloton) bandwidth. It may be recalled that the Hiroshima bomb used by the US on Japan in August 1945 was about 15 KT.
There are many complex regional and global implications of the latest North Korean nuclear test (the first credible nuclear explosion was conducted in October 2006) that involve the major regional powers — the US, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea — and their bi-lateral and multilateral relations.
Some of these strands have a relevance for India, particularly in relation to how Japan and South Korea now perceive their own WMD (weapons of mass destruction) security and the degree to which they feel that the US nuclear umbrella is adequate to assuage the insecurity that a nuclear Pyongyang induces.
Asia’s Nuclear Imbroglio
In the event either Tokyo or Seoul decides to acquire its own nuclear deterrent, the strategic contour of the Asian continent will become even more muddy and tangled than what it currently is.
Currently, Asia has three nuclear weapon states — China, India and Pakistan — and the status of North Korea and Israel was deemed to be opaque. After 2006, North Korea was deemed to be a Pluto nuclear power but that diminutive status has now been altered after today’s test.
Iran and Iraq were deemed to be engaged in the covert pursuit of nuclear weapons and the US-led action against them has added to regional tension and bloodshed. The current turmoil in West Asia and the birth of the ISIS (Islamic State) can be linked to these nuclear weapons-related developments.
The challenge that North Korea poses is how does the regional collective deal with a state that has an authoritarian and paranoid leadership which acquires nuclear weapons and then threatens to use them even without any tangible threat to national sovereignty?
East Asia, which includes two vibrant democracies, Japan and South Korea, is grappling with this nuclear nettle.
Threat from Pakistan
From an Indian perspective, this paradigm can be applied to Pakistan in ample measure and the Rawalpindi-Pyongyang nexus, that even had the then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto acting as an ‘inadvertent’ (?) courier, adds to the devious muddle.
Over the last month Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been drawing attention to Pakistan as the regional exporter of terror and has alluded to China’s role in endorsing and rewarding such behaviour. Pakistan which acquired nuclear weapons and missiles with covert Chinese and North Korean assistance (recall the AQ Khan nuclear Walmart) has maximised its WMD capability deviously.
First, the Pak military has used its nuclear weapons as an impregnable shield to enable its terror tactics. And secondly, Rawalpindi has repeatedly threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons against India should its many transgressions be dealt with firmly.
The introduction of a radical Wahabi-Salafi Islamist ideology that provides motivation to the potential terrorist makes the Pakistan challenge far more complex and venal than what North Korea currently poses.
India’s Fight Against Terrorism
Delhi is not a principal stakeholder in relation to North Korea’s nuclear defiance but it could draw attention to the cynical double standards that shape the policies of the major powers and their camp followers, when linking nuclear weapons and the scourge of terror.
Modi has been unusually candid in his recent summit-level meetings in drawing attention to the challenge that state-supported terrorism poses to the world at large. The sectarian element that pits Saudi Arabia against Iran is an abiding reality of the politics of Islam but rarely illuminated in the politico-diplomatic domain. The linkage with nuclear weapons is more opaque and the historical narrative often deliberately distorted, as was evidenced in the case of the AQ Khan episode.
India ought to consider a major international conclave that will focus on these issues, bring all factions to the table and the diplomatic coup will follow if Pyongyang also participates. However elusive the consensus, there is an ethical imperative to pursue it.
(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be reached at @theUdayB)