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Small Nuclear Blast, Big International Impact
UCSD experts discuss consequences of North Korea crisis.

By Ioana Patringenaru | October 16, 2006

North Korea won’t be able to launch nuclear missiles aimed at the West Coast of the United States for some time. But that country still poses a significant threat to U.S. interests in general and stability in North East Asia in particular, a panel of three UCSD experts said Wednesday.

North Korea Discussion Panel
From left to right: Tai Ming Cheung, Susan Shirk and Stephan Haggard.

They spoke to a standing-room only crowd at the Weaver Center at the Institute of the Americas. The panel was convened after North Korea announced on Oct. 9 that it had conducted its first nuclear test. The issue hit close to home for Takeo Hoshi, acting dean of the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, which helped organize the event. His hometown in Japan is well within the range of North Korean missiles, he said.

Last week’s nuclear test doesn’t seem to have gone as planned and more tests will likely follow, said Tai Ming Cheung, a research fellow at UC’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC), based at UCSD. “Some scientists and engineers may be in serious trouble in North Korea because of this,” he told the audience. North Korea won’t have a nuclear bomb that could be loaded onto a long-distance missile and threaten the United States any time soon, Cheung also said. It would be easier to make a bomb that can be dropped from an airplane or launched on a conventional weapon, threatening neighboring countries — especially South Korea, he said. 

IGCC Director Susan Shirk cautioned that North Korea markets and sells worldwide all the military technologies it develops. Asked if North Korea would potentially sell nuclear technologies to a terrorist organization, Shirk replied that there aren’t any known contacts between Al Qaeda and North Korea. “But there’s a real risk,” she said.

Shirk correctly predicted that China would side with the United States at the United Nations and agree to sanctions against North Korea. “China really holds the key,” she said. Shirk was in China last weekend as events unfolded and had to cancel a planned visit to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. “North Korea has been insulting China right and left,” she said. The Chinese want to avoid chaos and the collapse of the authoritarian regime how ruling in Pyongyang. But they’re not fond of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. “The Chinese believe he’s crazy,” Shirk said.

The bad news is that further sanctions could destabilize the North Korean regime and send hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border into China, said Stephan Haggard, director of the North Korea Pacific program at IR/PS. Haggard spent part of his summer on the border between North Korea and China.  An estimated 25,000 to 100,000 North Koreans crossed that border during a severe famine in the 1990s. If severe food shortages take place again, more could come. “It’s something to be concerned about,” he said.

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