North Korea reinforces trend of developing countries pursuing nuclear programs

North Korea's nuclear test should be seen from a broader perspective: the lack of deterrent mechanisms is encouraging developing countries to pursue their own nuclear programs in order to improve their strategic positions.

Nicole Stracke
Security and Terrorism Program

North Korea's first nuclear test on October 9 has triggered a debate on the global implications, as well as the short- and long-term impact in the Middle East in general and the Gulf region in particular.

In the short term, the nuclear test could undermine the current negotiations among Tehran, the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency to stop Iran's nuclear enrichment program. Like North Korea, Iran could choose to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, and accelerate its research to gain nuclear weapons capability. Iran is well aware of the possibility of United Nations sanctions. However, the country's leadership may reckon that if North Korea is able to withstand sanctions and develop its nuclear capabilities, then so could Iran. Tehran is pragmatic about military action and realizes that a US strike on its nuclear facilities could result in its nuclear enrichment program being delayed for years.

However, in the long term, it will be difficult for the United States and the international community to control Iranian activities to rebuild its nuclear program as the Iraqi example demonstrates. The Iraqi program was destroyed by Israel in 1981, but after the US invaded Iraq in 1991, it was discovered that the Iraqi regime had regained plenty of lost ground. The North Korean nuclear test has underlined the fact that, over the short or long run, the international community will face a much bigger problem beyond Iran pursuing a nuclear enrichment or weapons program.

North Korea's nuclear test should thus be seen from a broader perspective: the lack of deterrent mechanisms is encouraging developing countries to pursue their own nuclear programs in order to improve their strategic positions. This trend started during the last decade and has continued ever since. Currently, Pakistan, India, and North Korea possess nuclear capabilities. While Iran is pursuing a nuclear program, recent statements of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Yemeni President Abdullah Saleh indicate that they are pushing forward initiatives to start civilian nuclear programs with US cooperation. During the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting in Bahrain in September, the GCC Secretary-General, Abdul Rahman Al-Attiyah, called on Arab countries to rethink their zero nuclear option, and proposed pooling of Arab financial resources to start nuclear research.

It is interesting to note that all these countries are united by two denominators, which explain their common objective of pursuing nuclear programs. First, the governing regimes are ruling in an insecure and unstable domestic or regional environment. India and Pakistan are involved in a dispute over the border and territorial issue of Kashmir. The authoritarian North Korean government has not yet given up on its strategic objective of annexing South Korea. The threat perceptions of the ruling elites in Egypt, Iran and the GCC countries are heightened through the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict, the unpopular US involvement in the region, and the unstable situation in Iraq. And, Iran and the GCC countries are entering a struggle over strategic hegemony in the Gulf.

Second, in the global scenario, on the one side are the US with the world's largest defense budget and huge military capability, as well as economic powerhouses Japan and the EU. On the other side are developing countries India, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen and North Korea, none of which possess the military capabilities or the economic strength of the developed countries. North Korea, Yemen and Egypt have to deal with poor economic performance and education standards, and there is no sign of any short-term alternative to bridge the economic or military gap.

Thus, it appears that regimes which have existed over the years in an insecure domestic or regional environment or lack trust and confidence due to economic instability have increasingly developed threat perception toward potential enemies from within their own countries or region. It is in this context that they are trying to improve their strategic position by looking for short-term solutions. Many of these regimes equate security with enhanced military power, and nuclear enrichment seems the cheaper, faster and efficient alternative to overcome their insecurities and emerge as credible powers.

From the North Korean perspective, a nuclear bomb boosts the regime's chances of survival and gives it an advantage in negotiations with South Korea. Similarly, for Iran, acquiring a nuclear capability will help the regime use it as a tactical means to gain an upper hand in the ongoing dispute with the UAE over the Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs islands. The Iranian regime may also attempt to develop a "containment policy" of the US influence in the region. As far as the GCC countries are concerned, it will be impossible to live with a nuclear Iran evolving as hegemon and thus they may be forced into a "nuclear race" to maintain the 'balance of power' in the Gulf.

Given the increasing unpopularity of US policies in the region, one gets the impression that the latest initiatives to pursue a nuclear program, with US support or without it, is emerging as a new prestige project for some Asian and Middle East countries. The Iranian or Yemeni regimes could ensure increased public support by demonstrating leadership skills that reduce their dependence on the US and, as a result, lessen resistance against unpopular US policies in the region. The implementation of nuclear programs has a positive economic side too because nuclear energy generates electricity, an argument used by the Egyptian and Yemeni leadership. Even the oil-rich GCC countries argue that nuclear energy can help reduce the quantity of oil spent for electricity generation and water desalination, which would result in additional investments in the domestic education and infrastructure arenas.

Hence, the recent North Korean nuclear test should be considered within the global context. While it may undermine the EU initiative to prevent Iran's nuclear enrichment program, a matter of greater concern is that some developing countries in Asia and the Middle East are rethinking their nuclear policies. Finally, the North Korean case demonstrates that there is a lack of international mechanisms to prevent these countries from acquiring nuclear weapons in the long term. Unless there is an urgent and serious change in this regard, the chances of the North Korean example replicating remain open.

Published: 15 Oct 2006


Contact details:

187, Oud Mehta Tower, 11th Floor, 303, Sheikh Rashid Road, P O Box 80758, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

News topics: 
Content type: 
Websites: To post comment on this article, please click on this link