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Commentary: North Korea blast is a test for U.S.

  • Story Highlights
  • Paul Carroll: The North Korea blast violates international law
  • He says the threat is that N. Korea could sell or transfer nuclear know-how
  • Carroll says harsh sanctions or inducements to North Korea won't work
  • He says a patient policy of engaging with North Korea is best strategy
By Paul Carroll
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Paul Carroll is program director for the Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit organization that makes grants to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Before joining the fund in 2000, he worked at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Paul Carroll says a middle road between harsh sanctions and tempting inducements would be the best strategy.

Paul Carroll says a middle road between harsh sanctions and tempting inducements would be the best strategy.

(CNN) -- Reports of North Korea conducting a second nuclear test Monday have caused predictable alarm bells to ring in Washington, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo and around the world.

Pyongyang's action has rightly been condemned as a breach of international law, which it is because it violates U.N. Security Council resolutions passed in the wake of its earlier test in 2006.

But it is important to focus on two things in the aftermath of the test. First, what does this mean for the threat that North Korea poses to international security? Second, what should our next moves be?

The explosive power of the test is not yet verified, but early reports indicate that it may be in the multikiloton range, perhaps as high as 20 kilotons. That's about the same power as the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. This is significant because, if true, it would demonstrate that North Korea has improved its bomb design and fabrication skills. In short, it would show that the North is improving its nuclear bomb know-how.

But this alone is not a game-changer. The basic threat from North Korea's nuclear program remains the same. That is, it could choose to sell or transfer nuclear materials or know-how to unsavory states or terrorist groups. It has some six to eight bombs-worth of plutonium with which to work, though less after the test.

This is probably the greatest threat from Pyongyang. The more traditional threat of a mature nuclear warhead mated to a missile is not nearly within its grasp.

This capacity is still years away for North Korea. The fact that North Korea successfully detonated a nuclear bomb is certainly serious, but it has not fundamentally altered the strategic threats we face from Pyongyang.

We need to keep this in perspective to inform our thinking about what to do next. Since the Obama administration took office, there has been a steady wave of provocative rhetoric and behavior from North Korea.

During visits by representatives of American non-governmental organizations in the weeks after the inauguration (one of which I participated in), it was surprising how strident North Korean officials were in their view that nothing had changed in Washington, despite the handover of power.

They clearly signaled their intent to launch a satellite and threatened to reverse the steps they had taken to stop their nuclear production operations. Both have now come to pass.

There seem to be two responses being recommended to the president. One says "tighten the screws" and punish bad behavior. But we know that will not work with Pyongyang. It never has. For starters, China fears a collapse of North Korea more than a nuclear-armed neighbor. Thus, Beijing would not allow sanctions to risk the utter implosion of North Korea.

The other says "move quickly with new offers to Pyongyang." But this, too, has limitations and drawbacks -- it is too reflexive and plays into a tactic of giving positive attention to provocative actions. What is needed is a longer-term view and patient attitude toward engagement with North Korea.

What President Obama needs to develop is a long-term policy of subtle and creative engagement that stays consistent, especially during difficult times.

For example, try an ongoing military-to-military dialogue to work on joint efforts such as MIA remains recovery, as has been done in the past. Or perhaps try exchange programs with American universities that offer each nation's citizens a better understanding of the other as well as substantive academic pursuits.

In either case, the programs need to be designed so that they cannot be held hostage to diplomatic ups and downs. This has been the case for humanitarian assistance to North Korea from the U.S. and could serve as a model.

Too many carrots or sticks and too much back-and-forth depending on the latest events will not produce the stable diplomatic relationships that are necessary for success.

Patience, a stomach for occasional setbacks and dedication to the long haul offers the chance that when the circumstances provide a real opportunity for negotiation, we will have established some basis for it. Turning a hard, cold shoulder now will almost guarantee worse conditions down the road.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Carroll.

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