News Tip: Duke Experts Examine Possible Motive, Reaction to North Korea's Nuclear Test

North Korea's first nuclear weapon test, conducted earlier today, was motivated by a "sense of extreme insecurity," says a Duke University political scientist.

"A similar pattern of behavior was found in China in the early 1960s, when China was an isolated revolutionary state," said Tianjian Shi, an associate professor of political science whose areas of expertise include Asian security issues. "Mao did exactly the same thing."

Shi said the nuclear test places China in a difficult position. "In responding to the crisis, it needs to balance strategic interests and potential consequences associated with adopting more severe sanctions against North Korea."

Political scientist Margaret McKean said Japan's response may also be critical in how this situation is resolved.

"Japan is fully capable of going nuclear in fairly short order, without any of the technical obstacles that North Korea has been dealing with, and with high-grade stocks of plutonium already available," said McKean, an associate professor of political science who specializes in Japanese politics.

McKean noted that Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is known as a "hawk," and some Japanese leaders have been saying recently that a strike on North Korea could "conceivably be consistent with the ‘self-defense' that they claim Japan's peace constitution would permit."

"Much to the horror of South Korea and China (and a chunk of the Japanese population), North Korea's moves may be eliminating 60 years of nuclear allergy and pacificism in Japan," McKean said. "Considering their nations to be victims of Japan's wartime aggression, South Korea and China find the prospect of a nuclear Japan utterly horrifying. Indeed, China may well fear a nuclear Japan more than any disturbance in the Korean peninsula."

Public policy professor Bruce Jentleson said North Korea's actions warrant a swift, firm response from the U.N. Security Council.

"This is a moment when the major powers have to show both unity and decisiveness," said Jentleson, a former State Department official in the Clinton administration and foreign policy advisor to Vice President Al Gore. "The Security Council should consider all possible measures, including sanctions and potential military action, while also pursuing diplomacy. This requires balanced leadership from the Bush administration in partnership with China as well as other key countries."

Jentleson is an expert on non-proliferation who last week briefed a group of United Nations ambassadors on the Iran case.