By MR Josse
KATHMANDU: North Korea, on September 9, once more thumbed its nose at the international community with its defiant, triumphalist announcement that it had successfully tested a nuclear warhead that could be mounted on a missile. Its state media claimed that the test, which came after a series of ballistic missile launches, had attained the country’s goal of being able to fit a miniaturised nuclear warhead on a rocket.
It was timed to coincide with the 68th anniversary of DPRK’s founding and came immediately after an ASEAN summit in Laos attended, among others, by American President Barack Obama, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
The blast was estimated at 10 kilotons making the explosion the fifth and most powerful nuclear explosion that the DPRK had set off since it’s first in 2006. Detonated from its Punggye-ri nuclear site, it triggered alarm and anger not only in South Korea, Japan and the United States but also generated anxiety in China and Russia, not to mention at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
Un, grandson of DPRK founder Kim Il Sung and son of Kim Jong Il, has proven that he cares not a whit about what the rest of the world thinks of him and his relentless quest for intercontinental nuclear weapons delivery capability. Seemingly, Kim-III has transformed his very recklessness, brinkmanship and unpredictability into vital components of bizarre strategic geopolitical calculations.
Recall that although the UNSC imposed tightened sanctions that increased North Korea’s isolation, following its nuclear weapons test in January it clearly failed to prevent her from accelerating nuclear weapons development. As a matter of fact, the UNSC has issued five sets of sanctions since the DPRK’s first nuclear test in 2006!
Let us now put DPRK’s latest nuclear explosion into perspective. As explained by Karl Dewey, a London-based expert at IHS Jane’s: “It is smaller than Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but would still be capable of ripping the heart out of a city. According to a variety of news reports, no radiation was detected in the atmosphere in the area around the Korean peninsula; it created a seismic quake of 5.3 Richter intensity; some Western experts estimated Pyongyang to be in possession of between 15-20 nuclear weapons to date; while others say that Pyongyang is between 2-10 years away from developing full nuclear weapons delivery capability.
At the time of writing, one is informed that the UNSC is in the process sanctioning ‘further significant measures’ against DPRK if it refuses to stop its nuclear and weapons tests; it impact is however debatable, not least because of a visible lack of unanimity among UNSC members, including Russia and China. The latter would appear to be based on divergent geopolitical factors and strategic perceptions.
CHINA: KEY PLAYER
For starters, although China, North Korea’s only major diplomatic ally, said it was resolutely opposed to the test and urged Pyongyang to stop taking any actions that would worsen the situation, it would appear that even Beijing did not know what the DPRK had been planning. According to a Reuters report from Seoul, “China was silent on the prospect of a new United Nations Security Council resolution.”
On the other hand, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as stating that it may take more than additional sanctions to resolve the crisis, signaling that it may prove a challenge for the UNSC to come to an agreement on new sanctions.
As Lavrov put it: “It is too early to bury the six-party talks. We should look for ways that would allow us to resume them.” The so-called six-party talks that aimed at ending the DPRK’s nuclear programme, involving the United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea, China and North Korea, have been defunct since 2008.
US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called China as a ‘key player’ and urged it to exert ‘pressure’ on North Korea to mend it ways – after a succession of American leaders, including Obama – whether at Hangzhou or Vientiane – had been actively critical of her, including Beijing’s South China Sea claims.
Though one is not sanguine how much pressure China can really exert over North Korea, she still continues, according to multiple media accounts, to provide a ‘life-line’ to Pyongyang by way of trade and other linkages. Many Western analysts theorize that probably Beijing fears the threat of a reunited Korea linked to the US more than a nuclearized North Korea.
Others believe that China would, instead, gain from a re-united Korea – sans the hard-line Pyongyang regime – because such a development would open the door to accelerated economic development of China’s northeast, including increasing prospects for greater trade and investment opportunities between the two neighbours.
As far as Russia is concerned, apart from an uncomfortable feeling about a nuclearized North Korea, with whom it shares a border (not an extended one), there is little reason why Moscow should go out of the way to pull the West’s chestnuts out of the DPRK fire – without an appropriate quid pro quo. In the meantime, Russia-China naval exercises have begun in the South China Sea.
This new, blinding flood-light on DPRK’s nuclear ambitions is bound to revive all the familiar concerns about nuclear proliferation in general. That, of course, brings into the picture such myriad, but connected issues, as Israel’s, Iran’s and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons status and future programmes, not to mention India’s, whose current frenetic drive to acquire Nuclear Suppliers Group membership was nipped in the bud by a China looking with increasing disfavour at New Delhi’s embrace of Washington – and her provocative flirtation with Vietnam.
Finally, not to be forgotten is the undeniable reality that the current US administration is on its way out. Equally worthy of attention is the fact that not only Pyongyang but Manila too, has been scathing in their attitude towards America which they seem to believe is a fading power.
DPRK’s nuclear defiance: strategic implications
By MR Josse