The ten­sion sur­rounding North Korea and its devel­oping nuclear weapons pro­gram con­tinues to mount, fol­lowing the country’s announce­ment in late May that it had suc­cess­fully con­ducted an under­ground nuclear test. Polit­ical fallout includes inter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion of the testing and con­tinued threats by ailing pres­i­dent Kim Jong-​​il of mil­i­tary retal­i­a­tion against the United States, if pro­voked. Natalie Bor­mann, North­eastern doc­toral can­di­date in inter­na­tional pol­i­tics, instructor in pol­i­tics, and author of “National Mis­sile Defense and the Pol­i­tics of U.S. Iden­tity,” dis­cusses the situation.

Why does North Korea con­tinue to set off nuclear explo­sions in defi­ance of world­wide treaties?
The timing of North Korea’s nuclear test is indeed inter­esting, if not ironic, coming just days after the sui­cide of former South Korean Pres­i­dent Roh Moo-​​huyn and at a time when rela­tions between the U.S. and North Korea appeared to be improving. Roh Moo-​​huyn had firmly sup­ported a policy of engage­ment with North Korea. Also, in 2007, North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear reactor, and the U.S. removed the country from its list of state spon­sors of terrorism.

It seems inter­na­tional rela­tions with North Korea have wors­ened.
Rela­tions between North and South Korea have been dete­ri­o­rating; South Korea’s cur­rent gov­ern­ment is less con­cil­ia­tory than the pre­vious one. And the Six Party Talks — a series of meet­ings among the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea and Russia that tackle issues including North Korea’s weapons pro­gram — have actu­ally stalled. The U.S. thought that North Korea did not keep to its end of the agree­ment (North Korea pro­vided inad­e­quate infor­ma­tion on nuclear activ­i­ties and rejected stricter ver­i­fi­ca­tion pro­to­cols, for example). At the same time, North Korea seems to have been expe­ri­encing some succession-​​related internal tur­moil since Kim Jong-il’s stroke in 2008, and rhetoric toward its neigh­bors and the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity has become much more aggressive.

What are the pol­i­tics behind the May 25 test? To get more con­ces­sions from Wash­ington? For North Korea to dis­play its nuclear or tech­no­log­ical prowess to its own pop­u­la­tion?
No doubt, North Korea’s behavior can be seen as an effort to get Pres­i­dent Obama’s atten­tion and to push the North Korean issue fur­ther up the Wash­ington agenda, since the U.S. admin­is­tra­tion is in the process of for­mu­lating its policy towards North Korea. It can be seen as an attempt to pos­sibly induce fur­ther con­ces­sions. Also, North Korea has made it clear that it favors direct, bilat­eral talks with the U.S. instead of the six-​​party process.

Should we be afraid that North Korea will fire off a nuclear mis­sile aimed at another country?
Most of us per­ceive North Korea’s latest actions as reck­less. And North Korea’s announce­ment of its under­ground test in May seems to con­firm the U.S. intel­li­gence community’s con­cern about North Korea’s capa­bility to launch long-​​range mis­siles with nuclear war­heads. So, the country’s overall progress in mis­sile tech­nology may be of concern.

You have said it is not the weapons per se that create a sense of fear or worry.
Right. The fear stems more from con­cerns about North Korea’s lead­er­ship than from its expanding mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ties, and this is also where the solu­tion ought to be sought. After all, people seem to be far less afraid of the fact that the U.S. has nuclear capa­bil­i­ties — or the U.K. and France, for that matter. We are gen­er­ally accepting of the U.S. weapons capa­bil­i­ties, but not of North Korea and its program.

How should Pres­i­dent Obama respond? What can he do?
I think the Obama admin­is­tra­tion is in a really dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion. As men­tioned, North Korea seeks more bilat­eral com­mit­ments with the U.S. as opposed to multi­na­tional agree­ments, and this is an oppor­tu­nity for Pres­i­dent Obama to be seen as taking a strong posi­tion in the rela­tion­ship. North Korea may look to the U.S. for recog­ni­tion as a nuclear state and seek to receive eco­nomic aid in return for keeping its nuclear pro­gram small. So far, the Obama admin­is­tra­tion does not want to enter­tain that kind of deal.

Pres­i­dent Obama recently had stern words about North Korea, stating, among other things, that its rhetoric pre­sented a “grave threat.” What do you make of this?
I do not sug­gest that one should be dis­mis­sive of North Korean rhetoric, nor would I want to deny that the cur­rent nuclear devel­op­ments may pose a grave threat. How­ever, sim­ilar rhetoric has come out of North Korea in the past. Any nuclear devel­op­ments should raise con­cern, but we should remember that while North Korea tested a nuclear device of some sort, it does not equate to a nuclear weapon.