North Korea’s first underground nuclear test, conducted on 9 October in the northern mountainous section of the country, was evidently spurred by two imperatives – the need to shock Washington into accepting its demand for one-on-one talks ahead of the November congressional elections in the US and signs of rapprochement between China and Japan following the inauguration of newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Abe’s move to mend diplomatic fences with Seoul carries with it the possibility of bringing Tokyo and Seoul closer together after a period of diplomatic estrangement and raises the likelihood of deepening Pyongyang ‘s international isolation. Kim Jong Il has taken the first move to preempt his enemies.
It was also a show of defiance with an eye on Iran, a way of prodding Teheran into following thumbing its nose at the US. Kim evidently hopes this will restore Pyongyang’s lead in the Third World, which today is populated by the likes of Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But the price Kim pays for this adventurous course will be stiff. Whatever the real motives, Pyongyang’s nuclear test will put the already beleaguered regime on the road of no return. Instead of inviting himself into the coveted club of nuclear powers, he is practically expending the only card in his hand to blackmail the US, South Korea and Japan into giving him the life-raft he craves to save himself and his impoverished country from more international sanctions and isolation. Having long used the threat of developing a nuclear weapon as a bargaining tool, Kim now has no more tools left — other than exporting his nuclear know-how or ratcheting up more tension across the Demilitarized Zone.
The timing shows that Kim remains a consummate political maverick. Besides his attempt to push China into accepting his bomb as a fait accompli, internally, the nuclear test, coinciding with the 10 October anniversary of the founding of the ruling Korea Workers Party and the Ninth anniversary of his taking over the post of its general secretary, is designed to consolidate his rule. It is not only meant as a demonstration of the North’s military power but also a symbol of his heroic achievement.
In South Korea, which has had the burden of feeding the 22 million North Koreans for the past 15 years, the test has forced the administration of President Roh Moo Hyun to review his reconciliation policy. Inside the ruling party, which is filled with center-left members of parliament, there is already an air of resignation over losing the next government to the center-right conservatives in December’s presidential election. The first casualty of President Roh’s reconciliation policy with the North could very well be the Kumgang Mountain tourism project which funnels millions of US dollars a year to the North. Close behind it will be a freeze on any new investment in the Kaesong Industrial complex where North Korean workers earn hard currency working in factories funded by South Korean businessmen.
The test will blow Roh’s sunshine policy to smithereens. His mismanagement of the peace and reconciliation policy has come under severe criticism not only from the conservative opposition, but also from the business community. On the day of the underground test, the Seoul stock market dropped more than 33 points under panic selling. Other effects feared by the business community include capital flight and steep drops in asset values.
At the United Nations, Seoul’s failure to reconsider its policy of largesse toward North Korea will face criticism for violating a Security Council resolution that explicitly bans cash transfers to the North that could be used for nuclear weapon development.
Equally painful for the North will be Japan’s expected imposition of a second batch of sanctions under which all remittances to Pyongyang would be stopped, as well as banning all North Korean vessels from using Japan’s territorial waters.
The biggest embarrassment of all has fallen on Beijing, which was told just 20 minutes before the test that Pyongyang will proceed. China’s public reaction has been incendiary, calling Kim’s move as “brazenly.” It has driven China into a corner, putting to test its role as a responsible superpower. First, will be China’s position on a new Security Council resolution to be drafted by Japan (Japan now holds the rotating chairmanship) placing North Korea under sanctions that could entail military action in the event Pyongyang fails to comply. Iraq labored under that clause for years before the US invasion. In the last resolution, on July 15 following the North’s firing of missiles, China objected to this clause. This time, Beijing will need a lot of guts to oppose it, according to Seoul officials.
Nonetheless, North Korea may be calculating that even the trigger-happy trio of US President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would balk at a military response given the quagmire in Iraq, the disarray of the Republicans so close to the mid-term elections and the difficulty of making a connection between Kim Jong Il and more obvious threats to America such as al-Qaeda.
In addition, China has long remained vigilant against the projection of US military power across in North Korea. China sent more than a million “volunteers” to the Korean War in 1950 to keep the North a buffer against the US. Today, it has an additional concern not to see millions of hungry North Koreans flooding into China on the collapse of the Kim regime.
Certainly, the United States has few options despite Defense Secretary Rumsfeld so-called “swing strategy” that would allow the prosecution of two wars at once, one in the Middle East and one in Asia. With its troops stretched to the breaking point in Iraq it would be extremely difficult to come up with the men and materiel to fight the Korean War Part Two, especially without a military draft.
That leaves more economic sanctions agreed by the Security Council or by a coalition of interested parties, including China. Some action looks inevitable, particularly given the warnings by Beijing not to conduct the test. But how far China, Russia and South Korea are prepared to go is another matter.
In many ways the test does nothing to alter the balance of power in the region. The North had already been assumed to have nuclear capability but its large army is still equipped with obsolete weapons. Exploding a bomb under a mountain is one thing. Miniaturizing it into a small bomb capable of being fitted on a missile is quite another. (Making one even smaller for export to potential terrorists is another thing still.)
Given the limited options for dealing with North Korean defiance, there are strong arguments for ignoring the test and accepting reality. However, while this might make uncomfortable sense in Asia it is unacceptable to the US because of Washington's concerns over Iran, which are both emotional and obsessive even though Iran is probably at least a decade away from nuclear capability.
In the case of North Korea the leverage to do much does not exist, except perhaps in Beijing, which for a variety of reasons will not use it. China’s biggest concern is not refugees swarming the border, it is that a collapsed state will be replaced by one backed by US force.
This fear is palpable. Some years ago, during a stroll on the embankment of the Yalu River in Dandong, a Chinese university professor pointed in the direction of the North Korean city of Sinuiju on the other side and remarked: “We don’t want to see American armed troops across that river,” he said. The professor suggested looking at a map of China. The country faces Russia to the north, India and Pakistan to the west and south. China shares borders with 13 countries, including – now with North Korea – four of the world’s nine nuclear states. But the Korean peninsula is the only spot where China faces the possibility of armed US troops. It does not intend to allow that to happen.
In Seoul, the universal hope is that the current crisis will die down in a few days after which it will move to the Security Council for a new resolution, this time hopefully strong enough to force North Korea to rethink its policy. China’s role in making that happen will be crucial.