North Korea’s recent threats to attack Guam, a United States territory in the Western Pacific Ocean, using nuclear weapons can be regarded as a bluff; however, it should be considered with some concern. Pyongyang’s outburst comes after the recent sanctions imposed by the United Nations following its third nuclear weapon test on 12 February 2013.
For a number of years since the end of the Cold War, Pyongyang’s nuclear programme became a major bone of contention in international affairs and a challenge to the US hegemony in Southeast Asia. In 2006 and 2009, Pyongyang’s rocket tests were unsuccessful, yet this changed in December 2012 with a successful launch of a rocket.
Will North Korea’s rhetoric be followed by an actual nuclear war this time around, and what role can South Africa play in supporting negotiations with North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons?
The most pressing challenge about this whole issue is how to get the 29-year-old North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un, to enter into a dialogue with South Korea and the US, who are most concerned about the impact of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Of course, such negotiations would include China as a major regional power and as the country with discernible influence on Pyongyang.
Pyongyang continues to make dialogue conditional on the withdrawal of sanctions against what it considers to be a legitimate national interest in national defence and nuclear science. Its threats of being in a state of war with South Korea and nuclear strikes on the U.S may be designed to force such dialogue on its own terms. This suggests that the young leader is not about to depart from the path that his late father followed and this could have disastrous consequences for the Korean Peninsula and International nuclear diplomacy.
For this reason, while the world views Pyongyang’s threats and movement with interest and cynicism, it must also be alert and consider the unthinkable. This is said with a caveat that North Korea does not seem ready for the catastrophe this would cause to it and does not have sufficient capability in nuclear weapons to sustain the threats made. Although North Korea considers itself a nuclear power nation, capable to compete with other giant nuclear powers in the international community, this is yet to be tested. At the moment, the threats can also be considered to be a game of brinkmanship aimed to get concession from the United States and South Korea on sanctions.
However, with all the threats and warning of nuclear war, it would be a sad situation indeed if Pyongyang looks towards starting a nuclear war, a war that will become fatal to the millions of innocent citizens in North Korea and neighbouring nations. Therefore, North Korea’s enemies should also think carefully before they push the country over the edge, causing it to launch strikes.
Consequently, a possible solution to defuse the tension relies not only on the affected parties (the two Koreas and the United States), but it is the duty of the whole of the international community. The international community have to unite and agree on how to create an encouraging atmosphere that will help to initiate dialogue with North Korea.
The South African government has, since Pyongyang’s February 2005 announcement of a nuclear weapon deterrent capability, consistently called on North Korea to verifiably dismantle any lethal nuclear weapons. It has also advised the country to return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) without delay, to place all its facilities under comprehensive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verification, and to contribute through strengthened confidence-building measures to global nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation.
But it is not clear if SA has held bilateral engagements with the country to persuade it along these lines. Pyongyang-Pretoria bilateral relations began in 1998, and there’s more South Africa can do to influence North Korea’s nuclear policies through practical dialogue.
Having acceded to the NTP in 1991 and voluntarily dismantled its own nuclear weapons; South Africa can become a positive model for North Korea to find a right way to use nuclear only for peaceful means.
This is an opportunity for South Africa to position itself as a nation capable of making a constructive contribution to the most pressing challenge in international security. Though South Africa missed an opportunity to take this initiative while it was a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, it can still play a role by supporting engagement with North Korea, South Korea, China and the US to avoid catastrophic implications.
Mr. Kenny Dlamini holds a BA Hons in Politics from the Rhodes University and is a research assistant at the IGD. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.