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Why one expert thinks we should worry about North Korea

South Korean protesters in Seoul burn pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un following the North’s third nuclear test, Feb. 12, 2013.

Lee Jin-man/AP

Three questions for Paul Heinbecker, a distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and director of the Centre for Global Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University. He was Canada's representative to the United Nations and ambassador to Germany during a long diplomatic career.

North Korean's third nuclear test defied both its enemies and its sole friend and ally, China. Does Beijing's quick denunciation pose a risk to the regime in Pyongyang?

It could, and today the Chinese were more critical than previously about North Korea in the UN Security Council, but I'm not sure yet that Chinese policy towards Pyongyang will change. I could never understand why China has been so tolerant of North Korea; perhaps it is a hangover from the Korean War of the 1950s. Beijing has treated the North Korean dynasty as unruly children, rather than the juvenile delinquents or, perhaps more accurately, the criminal heads of a rogue state they are. At some point, perhaps now, Beijing may come to the conclusion that propping up the Pyongyang regime is more trouble than it's worth and poses a grave threat to the region.

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Several presidents have warned that North Korea wouldn't be allowed to cross the threshold and become a nuclear-weapons state. Yet the regime is closer than ever to mating a nosecone-sized nuclear warhead atop a ballistic missile. What does that mean for international security?

The North Korean nuclear program is fundamentally destabilizing, and if they get the capability to hit the United States, with a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile, then that multiplies the dangers. The North Koreans have the rockets and have proven they can detonate nuclear devices. They probably do not yet have the ability to combine the two reliably but Korea's program is more advanced and a hell of lot more dangerous than the Iranian one is. There aren't a lot of effective steps for the rest of us to take, because they are using indigenous material and technology. Also, North Korea is like a guy walking around in a supermarket with a revolver; everyone treats them with care because of the damage they can do. From caves along the 38th parallel they can rain missiles and artillery shells down on the 12 million people of Seoul. Going forward, therefore, the diplomatic game has to be to prevent the North Koreans from advancing their program and creating big trouble.

What can Tehran learn from the long, unfolding confrontation between the United States and North Korea over nuclear weapons?

Iran will be paying close attention, although the parallels with North Korea over its nuclear program are not perfectly apt. The Iranians may not draw any lessons directly from the North Koreans but they will certainly be aware that Iraq's Saddam Hussein gave up his nuclear-weapons program after the 1991 Iraq war and Libya's Col. Moammar Gadhafi gave up his nuclear-weapons program under pressure from Washington after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. Both of them lost their nuclear program and now they don't exist any more. North Korea likely draws the same lesson.

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