North Korea’s Nuclear Tantrum

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is no stranger to brinkmanship but his latest series of actions is qualitatively different. With North Korea’s second underground nuclear test conducted on May 25, and simultaneous test-firing of a series of short-range missiles in the direction of Japan over the following two days, Kim seems to be betting all his chips to get direct dialogue with the US. His failing health and uncertain succession may have added urgency to his drive to get US recognition as a nuclear power and to leave a stable legacy. He may soon discover that he has seriously miscalculated; instead of frightening the US and its South Korean and Japanese allies into a new round of talks, his gamble has pushed them into an even stronger resolve against the North’s proliferation drive.

Kim is fighting for a place in the nuclear club, and by doing so, will have the power to demand the withdrawal of American troops from the South. North Korea has not given up the ambition of reunifying the peninsula under its dominance, just as Vietnam was reunified under Hanoi's control. Through repeated nuclear tests, the North seeks to make its nuclear weapons program a fait accompli. Kim believes that getting admitted to the nuclear club is the only guarantee to keep his economically crumbling regime from being taken over by the vastly more powerful South Korea. A nuclear weapon, to him, is a ticket to survival.

While analysts speculate as to the reason for the second test, there seems to be no doubt that this time the blast was far more powerful in strength than the last one conducted in 2006. According to South Korean seismologists, the nuclear blast inside the Kilju mountains produced an earthquake scale of 4.5. But a Russian defense ministry official was quoted as saying the blast’s explosive power was between 10 to 20 kilotons, or ten or 20 times more powerful than the 1 kiloton strength of the first test three years ago.

As the United Nations Security Council once again began discussing a new resolution against the North, the Obama administration began mulling the possibility of reinstating North Korea on the list of nations sponsoring terrorism. Pyongyang was dropped last year in exchange for the promise of dismantling its nuclear facilities. Shortly after the nuclear test, the South Korean government announced it was now fully participating in the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). This participation would require South Korean anti-terrorist forces to board North Korean vessels suspected of carrying missile or other weapons of mass destruction if such vessels were sailing along South Korea’s coastal sea. The North has declared that this would amount to a declaration of war and if attempts were made to board North Korean ships on a “peaceful mission” North Korea would strike against the South.

Kim’s nuclear brinkmanship comes against the backdrop of the collapse of South Korea’s “sunshine” policy of accommodation under the new administration of conservative President Lee Myung Bak. Lee came to office 15 months ago on a promise to review the past ten years of engagement with the Pyongyang regime with plenty of cash and food aid.

In reversal of a decade of liberal policy under former presidents Kim Dae Jung and the late Roh Moo Hyun, President Lee placed denuclearization above reconciliation. That implies using economic aid not only to dismantle the nuclear program, but also Lee’s openly stated desire to trigger economic and political reform in the North.

The Kim regime is adamantly set against this policy change. But Kim also faces internal challenges in the form of his ailing health and uncertainty surrounding his succession. As the military and party officials jockey for position, the army establishment is said to have ascended in power. According to a recent report circulating in Seoul, the military faction ordered the execution of a party official in charge of negotiations with the South. This official was reportedly blamed for causing the situation in which the North now finds itself dependent on the South for economic survival.

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In light of the latest military escalation, earlier moves by North Korea can now be seen as first steps leading up to an all round challenge to the world. It perhaps explains why the North’s powerful National Defense Commission headed by Kim Jong Il disrupted the normal operation of the Kaesong Industrial Park just above the military demarcation line separating North and South Korea.

The Kaesong Industrial Park combines South Korean investment and skills with low-cost North Korean labor. But while a boon for hunger-stricken North Koreans, it is also seen as a political liability. Some one hundred South Korean companies inside Kaesong complex today hire a staggering 39,000 North Korean workers, a steep climb from a few thousand workers five years ago. This very success may have endangered those officials who worked to make it happen and now stand accused of making North Korea far removed from its vaunted principle of Juche – self reliance.

The move on Kaesong formed a link in the overall chain of events encompassing the April 5 rocket launch in defiance of international protests. The North’s foreign ministry declared that the UN condemnation was unjust, and North Korea was just in leaving the six-nation nuclear disarmament talks in Beijing.

Growing increasingly wary of the North’s bellicosity, Seoul has quietly hardened its position. Now the nuclear weapon and missile tests have pushed Lee to embrace the Proliferation Security Initiative aimed at stopping North Korea’s nuclear business.

In a phone conversation with President Obama, the South Korean president reportedly urged him not to reward North Korea by pushing for talks. By joining the long-postponed adherence to the PSI, which is already signed by 92 countries, South Korea is signaling its resolve not to be cowed by North Korean moves.

Outside the peninsula, Kim’s latest provocations have also left his erstwhile allies China and Russia embarrassed. Russia indicates it will cooperate with the US in adopting a new UN resolution, calling for stronger sanction on the North. But the recent tensions have heightened China’s policy dilemma regarding Pyongyang. China’s past position of asking “all concerned parties” to “calm down” now looks quixotic in the face of North Korea’s one-sided provocations. The question of whether to go on supporting Pyongyang or exercise influence to moderate it has begun to divide China’s policy establishment. On one hand lie “traditionalists” calling for continued support and on the other, “internationalists” asking for a “re-examination” of its past policy, according to Suh Jae Jean, a top North Korea watcher in Seoul. While policy change seems unlikely, any sign of China seriously reconsidering its policy of all-out protection of the Kim regime would have a crucial bearing on the future of the North Korean government.

All this makes Kim’s chances of emerging from this crisis richly rewarded, as has been the case so far, looking positively small. His gamble to get recognition as a nuclear power and be invited to the table by throwing a nuclear tantrum may have brought the peninsula to an unprecedented crisis. How he will resolve the crisis may have far reaching effects for the region and the world.

Shim Jae Hoon is a Seoul-based columnist. This originally appeared in Yale Global Magazine. Reprinted with permisssion,

© Copyright 2009 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization