Third strike

New strategies are needed to address nuclear proliferation and restore balance of power in East Asia

North Korea did not disappoint those predicting its third nuclear test this month. But Pyongyang's defiance of the international community and its refusal to heed strong warnings from China, its closest external partner, reveal that the traditional approaches to North Korean proliferation of nuclear weapons are not effective anymore. The longer the US takes to come to terms with this inescapable reality, the greater will be the impact of North Korea's nuclear threat on the East Asian balance of power and the global non-proliferation regime.

The nuclear test comes barely weeks after the United Nations Security Council imposed fresh sanctions in response to North Korea's test of a long-range rocket in December. In ordering the nuclear test and openly signalling that one is due, the young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has declared that he is unafraid of additional international sanctions. Unlike the two earlier tests in 2005 and 2009, Pyongyang gave a little more detail this time around. Announcing it on Tuesday morning, the regime said this test involved a "miniaturised and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force" than in the previous tests. Analysts will pore over data from atmospheric samples and other intelligence to see if the claims of North Korea, that the latest test is more sophisticated than the earlier two, are indeed true.

While North Korea might yet be some distance away from a deployable nuclear arsenal, Pyongyang's nuclear test comes amid sharpening maritime territorial disputes among China, Japan and South Korea, the surging of nationalist passions in East Asia and a changing military equation between Washington and Beijing. The test adds to the growing destabilisation of one of the world's most dynamic economic areas. Instead of treating North Korea as a deviant state and imposing additional sanctions that will further provoke Pyongyang, or hoping that China will somehow persuade the regime to give up nuclear weapons, the US must acknowledge that North Korea is now a nuclear-weapon state. As it develops a short-term strategy to contain a nuclear North Korea, the US must also redress the deep security concerns of the two countries that are most affected — South Korea and Japan. The time has come to stop treating North Korea as a mere problem of proliferation and deal with its nuclear defiance as part of an intensive strategic effort to restore the balance of power in Northeast Asia.

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