North Korea’s nuclear and rocket tests are viewed domestically as essential for national security and prestige. But they alienated even China, and may escalate tensions beyond the point of no return, which would be disastrous for everyone involved.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have ignited once again, marking the most-unstable period of inter-Korean relations since Kim Jong-un began his tenure in December 2011. On February 12, 2013, news surfaced of man-made seismic activity measuring at 4.9 on the Richter scale in North Korea, which was later confirmed to be the result of the third nuclear test Pyongyang promised to carry out.
Following the successful launch of an indigenous satellite into orbit using a long-range missile in December 2012, the UN Security Council recently tightened sanctions on the DPRK that impose asset freezes and travel bans on individuals involved in state companies and North Korea’s space agency. Pyongyang has recently threatened to respond to the tightened UN sanctions using “stronger measures” than a nuclear test.
An official of the Korea Meteorological Administration shows a seismic image of a tremor caused by North Korea′s nuclear test, in Seoul on February 12, 2013. (AFP Photo/Kim Jae-Hwan)
While bellicose rhetoric is to be expected from Pyongyang, recent statements against the United States and South Korea are unusually high on the Richter scale of belligerence. “We are not disguising the fact that the various satellites and long-range rockets that we will fire and the high-level nuclear test we will carry out are aimed at the United States,” stated North Korea’s National Defense Commission.
Pyongyang has also warned of “physical countermeasures” against South Korea if they participate in the UN sanctions against the North, stating, “as long as the South Korean puppet traitors’ regime continues with its anti-DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] hostile policy, we will never sit down with them.”
Activists from an anti-North Korea civic group burn a North Korea flag in front of banners bearing anti-North Korea messages near the U.S. embassy in central Seoul February 12, 2013. (Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji)
Reports issued prior to the February 12 test claimed that North Korea has allegedly been placed under martial law, and its people told to “prepare for war” with the South. South Korean sources reported, accurately, that Kim Jong-un issued a secret order to “complete preparations for a nuclear weapons test and carry it out soon.” Seoul-based military sources have also claimed that Pyongyang plans to conduct two simultaneous nuclear tests at once, or in quick succession, based on satellite data monitoring the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site.
To further complicate matters, General Jung Seung-jo, Chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned that the South could launch pre-emptive strikes against the North if it tried to use nuclear weapons, stating, “if [the North] shows a clear intent to use a nuclear weapon, it is better to get rid of it and go to war, rather than being attacked.” North Korea’s plans to test nuclear weapons go against the conciliatory tone struck by Kim Jong-un toward relations with the South in his New Year’s Address, and his intentions to bolster the isolated state’s moribund economy.
Pyongyang is often viewed as a wildcard, but a closer examination of its domestic affairs in recent years shows that moves towards nuclearization are inevitably linked to extracting as many aid concessions as possible (especially at a time when political changes are taking place in South Korea), in addition to buying time for the regime in Pyongyang to incrementally improve its weapons technology.
Pyongyang is keen to avoid being overly reliant on Beijing, and so North Korea actually has a strong imperative to secure as much aid as possible from the US and South Korea to keep itself afloat. This recent nuclear test does not serve the DPRK’s interests and will only further strain its economic lifeline with China, even possibly inviting preemptive strikes from South Korean forces, leading to open war and a truly unpredictable situation that all regional players should be keen to avoid.
South Korean passengers watch TV news reporting North Korea′s apparent nuclear test, at the Seoul train station on February 12, 2013. (AFP Photo/Kim Jae-Hwan)
From the perspective of the Kim regime, which molds the opinions that North Korean civilians uphold, half of the Korean Peninsula is occupied by the United States. State newspapers such as the Rodong Sinmun routinely refer to the South Korean government as a puppet of the United States, and recently highlighted Pyongyang’s displeasure with increasingly provocative joint US-ROK military drills: “Ultra-modern war means are being amassed in South Korea and in the areas around the Korean Peninsula. The US nuclear submarine and Aegis cruiser entered south Korea to hold combined marine exercises and to show off ‘military muscle’… warmongers are inciting war fever while touring units in the forefront areas.”
North Korea routinely complains of discrimination by world powers, compelling it to resort to nuclear deterrence; the fact that South Korea faced no international obstruction over its recent satellite launch only reinforces Pyongyang’s rationale. By acknowledging the “ultra-modern” military capabilities of the joint US-ROK forces, it can be gathered that the North realizes its own arsenal is much less sophisticated, as many military analysts confirm.
The military muscle of the US-ROK forces certainly poses an existential threat to Pyongyang, and as a result, the Kim dynasty sees the proliferation of nuclear weapons as the only surefire way to guarantee its own security. However, the North Koreans must realize that they can only get away with nuclear adventurism for so long, and it appears that the DPRK may soon be at risk of aggravating the hand that feeds it – literally.
This screen grab taken from North Korean TV on February 12, 2013 shows an announcer reading a statement on the country’s nuclear test. (AFP Photo/NORTH KOREAN TV)
Straining ties with Beijing
China is not looking for any additional agitation as it prepares for its once-in-a-decade leadership transition. Analysts are pondering how Xi Jingping’s administration will treat North Korea. China’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) is the ultimate decision-making and policy-shaping body, and two members of China’s incoming PSC, Zhang Dejiang and Sun Zhengcai, have spent years in close proximity to North Korea, engaging in cross-border interactions with North Korean counterparts aiming to promote economic reform in Pyongyang.
Despite nearly open war between the two Koreas in 2010 after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of a South Korean military vessel, China’s relationship with North Korea during the incumbent Hu Jintao administration was marked by several victories – noticeable economic cooperation with Beijing during the stable succession of Kim Jong-un, and a general lack of external interference in the DPRK’s affairs.
Much to the surprise of many analysts, China backed the recent UN sanctions on Pyongyang, indicating some disapproval with the Kim dynasty’s hostility. Even so, it is unlikely that Beijing and Washington will begin playing from the same sheet music. China signaled its frustration with the North in an opinion piece in the ultra-nationalis newspaper Global Times: “If North Korea engages in further nuclear tests, China will not hesitate to reduce its assistance to North Korea.” The editorial went on to say that if the US, Japan and South Korea “promote extreme U.N. sanctions on North Korea, China will resolutely stop them and force them to amend these draft resolutions.”
Activists from an anti-North Korea civic group burn placards of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a protest against North Korea nuclear test in Seoul on February 12, 2013. (AFP Photo/(Kim Jae-Hwan)
China’s position on this issue should be commended for its balanced approach. For Beijing, stability is the name of the game; China does not want any military confrontations or mass refugee spillovers into its borders.
Even as Beijing becomes more upfront with its discontent, China has a valuable economic stake in North Korea’s development; it continually invests in joint ventures with Pyongyang and has led initiatives to develop the nation’s vast untapped mineral resources (which include deposits of coal, iron ore, gold ore, zinc ore, copper ore, and others) valued at a staggering $6.1 trillion.
The centerpiece of Beijing’s foreign policy strategy towards the North under Xi Jingping will be encouraging the regime to behave more sensibly and focus on meeting the needs of its people. Perhaps policymakers in Beijing will have an easier time convincing Pyongyang to drop the nuclear rhetoric in exchange for a meaningful security pact in which Pyongyang is guaranteed military support from China if things ever get ugly. Given the non-interference stance championed by Beijing, it would be doubtful that Beijing would extend itself in this way.
Conundrum for President-elect Park
This third nuclear test will also put South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye in an extremely uncomfortable position, making it easy for her to enrage those on both South Korea’s left and right depending on how hard or soft a line she toes with Pyongyang.
Park spoke of easing relations with the DPRK, but like her predecessor, she maintains that the North’s denuclearization is a prerequisite for any negotiations; translation – there will be no negotiations and the ROK’s foreign policy trajectory is likely not to differ from that of hardline-conservative President Lee Myung-bak.
Pyongyang has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to comply with the ROK’s demands, and vice-versa. Inter-Korean relations appear to be following a repetitive script, with Washington’s solution to every issue being to tighten sanctions on the North.
No good from US military pressure
The case has never been stronger for the withdrawal of the 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea, a move that would satisfy civilians in both Koreas and yield higher chances of provoking a positive response from Pyongyang.
Analyst Geoffrey Fattig argues in favor of a new approach being taken by the US by highlighting how Washington’s main source of leverage against the North is the military option, citing the friction caused by the mere presence of US troops: “The Obama administration needs to realize that it is holding a weak hand and fundamentally change its strategy… it is time for the Obama administration to start withdrawing the American military from Korean soil.
He adds: “Not only would such a move save billions of dollars annually at a time when the cost of maintaining America’s global garrison is coming under increasing scrutiny, but it would shift the impetus for negotiating solutions to the long-running dispute squarely onto the shoulders of the key players in the region.”
South Korean soldiers march during their military drills near the demilitarized zone separating North Korea from South Korea, in Paju, north of Seoul February 12, 2013. (Reuters/Lee Jae-Won)
Pyongyang must play along
Pyongyang is playing a dangerous game, and its continued belligerence can only be tolerated for so long. At this stage, Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric of bringing about a “radical turn in the building of an economic giant” can only be taken as seriously as Pyongyang’s hilarious claims of “conquering space” by launching its satellite. By failing to be a coherent actor in the economic, security and diplomatic realms, the DPRK is doing more long-term harm to its existence than it realizes.
North Korea suffered immense human losses during the Korean War throughout the relentless US bombing campaign that flattened the country; it has legitimate grievances in wanting to safeguard its national security, but its lunatic defiance, odious personality cult, and unwillingness to follow Beijing’s advice by making serious economic reforms only further ostracizes Pyongyang in the eyes of the international community, to the point where its right of self-defense is being infringed by UN resolutions.
North Korea’s controversial nuclear tests carry the very real possibility of a deadly military conflict between the two Koreas – a conflict that must be avoided no matter how provocative, belligerent or infantile either side behaves.
Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at [email protected]