The United States must be rueing the day it created the hydrogen bomb in 1952. Its bête noire, North Korea, has now gone and not only built one but also tested it. Or so it insists. This is North Korea’s fourth nuclear test since it blasted its way into the nuclear club in 2006.
Why would the country want to defy world opinion in this brazen and some would say crazy manner, as encapsulated by the breathless statement its government released? Because, for one thing, its leader, Kim Jong-un continues to say that he sees the US as a threat and trots that out as the reason for building nuclear weapons.
Nothing, clearly, has changed on that front in the last 60-odd years. North Korea’s first leader, Kim Il-sung had been convinced of the usefulness of nuclear weapons even as early as during the Korean War. After all, it was the threat by Truman of using it that had brought China scurrying to the negotiating table for an Armistice Agreement in 1953 between the parties involved.
Kim Jong-un is also bent on proving that North Korea is indeed a nuclear power with a sufficiently sophisticated nuclear device. In fact, he had claimed in December that he possessed one.
That claim led the Chinese to cancel, at the very last moment, a performance by the famous North Korean all-women pop band, Moranbong (Peony Bud), which was scheduled to perform in China on December 12. It was to have been a visit to boost friendship between the two countries. Their show was cancelled just the day before they were to perform and they had to return hurriedly.
This was a big snub for North Korea, especially because it was Kim Jong-un’s favourite band – one which is said to have been formed by him with beauty as one of the criteria for its membership.
Predictably, China too has condemned the test. “China firmly opposes this nuclear bomb test by North Korea,” its foreign ministry spokesperson said at her daily briefing on Wednesday. “North Korea should stop taking any actions which would worsen the situation on the Korean Peninsula.” Meanwhile, the international community, is pressing for further sanctions. The UN is condemning North Korean behaviour in the face of sanctions. The truth is that no one actually knows what to do.
There is not much point, however, in debating the immediate motivation. What is clear is that Kim Jong-un is more focussed in his objectives than the UN is because it sometimes targets North Korea’s nuclear weapons and sometimes its human rights issues.
However, his ways continue to be an enigma as much for the international community as for his own people. His succession in 2011 after the sudden death of his father Kim Jong-il had sparked a lot of debate regarding the life span of his regime but that has endured. The successive bloody purges conducted by him within his country have also stood the test of turbulent times.
Kim Jong-un’s New Year speech this year gave no indication of any of this. He had talked about being open to discussing peaceful reunification with South Korea. He had also assured the South that he would continue to seek dialogue and would not take any further steps backwards. But now this detonation has once again set back the clock.
The international community is raising questions about the yield and design of the device and its delivery system. But North Korea has claimed that it has tested a ballistic missile successfully from a submarine in May 2015. The South Koreans had reported a similar submarine launched ballistic missile test by North Korea in December last year. So now what?
Chinese president Xi Jinping is the person on whom all eyes are focussed. How is the big brother going to deal with his irritating younger sibling, especially when Xi has his hands full dealing with a ‘new normal’ GDP growth rate and is struggling with targets to be met by 2020, the final year of the first five year plan under him?
China has always supported North Korea against all odds only so that nothing derailed its own economy, but North Korea gives no indication that it cares.
What then is the recourse left in China’s hands? Not much, I would think, especially since China will, as always, want to keep its self-interest intact. China will need North Korea to be able to link itself to South Korea for its One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. And, South Korea is China’s third largest trading partner.
Similarly, the success of South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s “Eurasia initiative” will require access through North Korea and therefore, its co-operation. This initiative involves constructing a land route that would connect South Korea, North Korea, China, Russia, Central Asia and Europe, largely for energy purposes.
One could then assume that now it may be the turn of Japan to take a strong stand this time. Shinzo Abe has certainly promised a tough response.
Let’s wait and watch.
Vyjayanti Raghavan is Professor, Centre for Korean Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University