So North Korea detonated its fourth nuclear device on January 5. While some may have been caught off guard, it was not much of a surprise to those that (1) had paid attention to the recent preparations at Pungkye-ri, the North’s testing site in the northeast of the peninsula, and (2) know that the regime likes to stage such events to coincide with significant dates, like Kim Jong Un’s 30-somethingth birthday on January 8.
There are a number of qualified observers who will take into consideration the depth of the explosion, the seismic measurements, and other factors
I will leave it to others for the analyses and conclusions about whether the device that the North Koreans tested was merely a “routine” atomic one, a “boosted” (“1.5”) atomic bomb, or a badly failed try at igniting a thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb. There are a number of qualified observers who will take into consideration the depth of the explosion, the seismic measurements, and other factors such as air sampling results to arrive at reliable estimates of the yield and which type of device it was. All this will take a bit of time.
While this is going on, however, attention needs to be paid to another – perhaps more important – aspect of this event. Even though there will hopefully be little radioactive fallout from this test (most underground explosions are well contained), there is another type of fallout: geopolitical. We need to understand the ways in which this fourth nuclear detonation will change – and will not change – the Northeast Asian geopolitical environment.
China will condemn the test and likely even endorse additional sanctions, which they will then ignore when the time comes to apply them, for it will not leave North Korea to fail. China does not want the chaos of a collapsing North Korea on its borders, particularly in light of the 2 million ethnic Koreans in the Chinese provinces just across the border from North Korea. Nor does it want perhaps as many as hundreds of thousands of Korean refugees streaming across its borders to avoid worsening conditions in North Korea. Most assuredly, China does not want U.S. troops entering North Korea to quell anarchy or large-scale civil unrest that will likely come about if North Korea implodes.
This represents no change from China’s current policy; however, what will change is the amount of good will held for North Korea. How this plays out will likely be in a reduction of oil and grain exports to and capital investments in North Korea, enough to hurt but not enough to destroy the North Korean regime.
Japan, a U.S. ally, will condemn the test as well and likely turn an even colder shoulder toward North Korea, and the event may be seen as more reason to work more closely with South Korea to counter the North. Given the already frosty relations due to the unresolved issue of North Korea having abducted Japanese citizens in the past, this also heralds little change from the status quo. Although the test may be motivation to work more closely with South Korea, another U.S. ally, the unraveling comfort women agreement between the two countries is likely to prevent significant progress on that front.
Russia is financially incapable of being a state sponsor of North Korea, and therefore its influence on the North is minimal. However, Russia does have extensive energy and other economic interests in Korea. Trade and direct shipments through North Korea to the South are extremely attractive to a cash-strapped former world power. That is not to say that it is pleased with the increasing probability of a nuclear armed and missile capable North Korea, but Russia will likely do little to upset any profitable venture involving the North. This, too, is nothing new, just more of the status quo despite the latest nuclear test.
On the peninsula, inter-Korean relations will sour, ruining what progress might have been built upon the cooperation between the two countries needed for the reunions of families separated during the Korean War. The North Korean expression of regret for its botched DMZ mine event last year in which two South Korean soldiers were wounded grievously will have been for naught, for it is unlikely that the current government of South Korea will now be in a forgiving mood. The pendulum has swung back to the negative side.
A major player in Northeast Asian affairs, the U.S. will continue to dither (that is, show “strategic patience”) for the next 12 months until a new president is installed. Upon the new president’s inauguration, the U.S. stance will likely change to one that is more action-oriented. Depending upon which candidate is elected, this could mean (a) more proactive engagement – even negotiations (indeed, North Korea has long wanted dialog with the U.S., something that is low cost and certainly is not a loss of face), or (b) additional, stringent sanctions and a more hawkish posture that could lead to a confrontational show of force on the peninsula.
What to do? Everyone needs to wait until dust settles and we have a clear understanding of the outcome and implications of the nuclear test. Then, we ought to publicize the analyses of the event to expose the truth about the North Korean claim of having pulled off a so-called “100 percent successful hydrogen bomb test.” In reality, however, the North’s bluster about having a hydrogen bomb could be partly true – it might have been a “tritium (a radioactive isotope of hydrogen) boosted” device – but it almost certainly was not a true thermonuclear explosion. Quite likely, however, all of the boasting could be strictly for internal consumption, to drive up the national spirit.
… it won’t be long before the North does succeed in perfecting its road-mobile and submarine-launched missiles as well as a nuclear weapon to ride them
We can take temporary comfort in the fact that this latest test does not change the immediate capabilities of North Korea to wage war or strike its enemies indiscriminately, for it has yet to show that it has a reliable delivery system for any nuclear device. It also does not appreciably change the intent of North Korea, for it knows that as soon as it uses a nuclear device of any type against South Korea or its allies, North Korea will suffer extreme consequences. Irrespective of that, however, it won’t be long before the North does succeed in perfecting its road-mobile and submarine-launched missiles as well as a nuclear weapon to ride them. Thus, the dithering must come to a stop.
The major lesson to be learned here is for the U.S. to finally realize that China has little influence over the young Kim Jong Un. Hopefully, the U.S. will also realize that diplomatic engagement with the North is not a loss of face, and that discussions may be valuable in easing tensions. This nuclear event could even be the catalyst for progress in dealing with North Korea in a meaningful way. Finally, it may dawn on politicians and diplomats that continuing to deny that North Korea is nuclear power is like driving the ship of state with eyes closed, a rather senseless course of action, given the potential for disaster.
Image: Rodong Sinmun
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