In a Dangerous World, North Korea’s Latest Nuclear Test Makes a Kind of Sense

North Korea’s latest nuclear test, announced triumphantly on Wednesday, is of course a worry. But a surprise it is not. Kim Jong-un has many reasons to do this, and all too few incentives not to.

Technology is one motive. Having taken the nuclear road, that threat has to be credible. This requires regular tests: in 2006, 2009, 2013 and now 2016. Pyongyang’s specific claims – this time, that it is an H-bomb – may be exaggerated, but we cannot be complacent. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) skilled scientists, slowed only slightly by UN and other sanctions, are steadily refining Kim’s arsenal. Two key steps are miniaturisation – making a bomb small enough to fit on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – and perfecting the latter. North Korea has been testing submarine-based launches, which in principle would be a game-changer, allowing it to threaten the US, or indeed anywhere else on the planet.

Domestic politics is a second factor: specifically, loyalty and legitimation. Kim Il-sung made the initial nuclear choice, which was faithfully implemented by his son Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-un, young and insecure, has no option but to endorse and reinforce the legacies of his father and grandfather.

National pride is at play too. Like Iranians, ordinary North Koreans are proud of their country’s nuclear prowess – and also of the satellite launches which double up as partial ICBM tests. We may see another of those too – the last was in 2012 – to provide further patriotic fireworks in the run-up to this year’s big event in Pyongyang: the first full Congress of the nominally ruling Workers’ party (WPK) in 36 years, scheduled for May.

In a third arena, the international one, the gains appear less clear. North Korea well knows that its latest nuclear test, like the three before and indeed those ICBM tests, will attract near-universal opprobrium. The UN Security Council (UNSC) will meet for an emergency session and pass yet another condemnatory resolution. As ever, this will be unanimous: Russia and China deplore their sometime protege’s nuclear waywardness no less than the west does. Sanctions will be tightened still further, though in truth there is not a lot left to sanction. Some countries might now follow Japan and ban all trade; the UN specifies only military and luxury goods.

Beijing’s reaction will be crucial. Despite visibly warm ties with South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye – whose own attitude to the North is sadly unimaginative and contradictory: no hope there – Xi Jinping had been shifting back to a more balanced Korea policy. A senior Chinese politburo member attended the WPK’s 70th anniversary celebrations in October, and talk was growing of Kim Jong-un making a long overdue first visit to China as leader. That cannot now happen anytime soon. Beijing is furious, having on this occasion not even been afforded the brief advance warning which Pyongyang had given it before previous tests.

China is the DPRK’s most dominant trade partner by far and could, should it choose, put one or more fingers to Kim Jong-un’s windpipe simply by stopping buying North Korean coal, seafood and other exports. Kim is gambling Xi will not do that, for the same reason as always. China fears chaos on its borders, and generating refugee flows which could cause contagion within. The ongoing refugee crisis in Europe is a portent, the last thing China wants to face in its own back yard.

Kim is probably right to bet that China’s strategic calculus will not soon change. Still, North Korea’s nuclear option strikes outsiders as risky and perverse. Its costs in terms of squandered opportunity are huge. Keen to boost a backward economy, Kim Jong-un has created about 20 new special economic zones. But who will put their money into a country under UN sanctions, which also treats its few foreign investors so badly? The biggest, Egypt’s Orascom, is unable to repatriate profits from its mobile telecoms joint venture – which now faces a domestic DPRK competitor.

As both the nuclear test and Orascom’s fate show, the North Korean regime does not give a damn what the world thinks. While deplorable and to a degree self-defeating, this insouciant defiance also makes a grim kind of sense, both historically and reinforced by recent events.

The last century was extremely tough for Korea: it was brutally occupied by Japan, then sundered in 1945 by its liberators. Kim Il-sung’s bid for reunification by force precipitated the Korean war (1950-53) which saw the North bombed and napalmed mercilessly by the US on behalf of the UN.

To grasp the mentality this apocalypse bred, think Israel. Kim Il-sung resolved to ensure that no one would ever do that to his realm again. Taking aid where he could, but trusting friends no more than foes, he built a mighty, impregnable fortress – literally and metaphorically.

Just as in Jerusalem – which gets away with this, unlike North Korea – the view from the Pyongyang bunker is that, in a dangerous world, nuclear weapons are the only sure guarantee of security and survival. The argument is essentially the same as the National Rifle Association’s case against gun control. Fortunately most of the world’s 200-odd states do not think and act this way. Yet recent events can only have confirmed the DPRK in its worldview.

A decade ago, siren voices urged Kim Jong-il to emulate that sensible Colonel Muammar Gaddafi: give up weapons of mass destruction, come in from the cold. Pondering both Gaddafi’s miserable end and the state of Libya today, Kim Jong-un’s firm grip on his bomb makes a kind of sense.

Ignoring North Korea, as the US under Obama and other powers have done of late, is not a solution. There are no easy answers, but re-engaging Pyongyang is the only way forward. The dreary tit-for-tat of tests, sanctions, more tests, more sanctions has resolved nothing. Hopes of a collapse, which I used to share, appear wishful thinking.

Besides, be careful what you wish for. Loose nukes, chaos, millions of refugees: how is that better than the Korean status quo?


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