North Korea’s Nuclear Test and U.S.’s North Korea Policy

Hyeong Jung Park
Hyeong Jung Park Senior Research Fellow, Korea Institute for National Unification, Republic of Korea

October 1, 2006

On October 3, North Korea announced its plans for a nuclear weapons test, and conducted the test on October 9. How is the test affecting US’s policy towards North Korea? The following are answers to five different questions concerning this issue.

The first question is whether the US is paying more attention to North Korea in terms of policy because of the test. The answer is negative. Iraq remains US’s highest policy priority. Then, will this change if North Korea conducts a second nuclear weapons test or launches more missiles? The answer is still no.

After 9-11, the war against terror and the war in Iraq have been US’s top foreign policy agenda. The US has not wished for an escalation of tension in North Korea, so that it could stay focused on Iraq and on terror. In this context, Northeast Asian issues, especially those concerning North Korea, were practically entrusted to China. This basic framework will not change after North Korea’s nuclear test, and is unlikely to change in future.

But there are two aspects that could change. One, which will be elaborated further below, is that due to the test the US has now seized the opportunity to isolate North Korea even further, and will be willing to actively exploit it. This is a departure from its passive attitude in the past, where the US was more inclined to neglect problems caused by North Korea.

Another aspect is that North Korea is increasingly turning into an object of policy bargaining between the US and China due to the fact that the US is unwilling to deal directly with North Korea but relations between China and North Korea are deteriorating. The future of North Korea and the Kim Jong Il regime is currently a frequent topic of conversation between the US and China. US officials are also expressing its desire to “respect China’s interests.”