(I apologize in advance if any of these arguments are not entirely called out. This post has been weighing on my mind for the past two days and I have done my best with the information that is available at the time of posting. As information becomes known, I will attempt to update the post with more information.)
The world was shocked throughout the day as the news started to surface. At 10am (North Korean local time) seismic activity was reported as coming from the area where North Korea tested 3 other nuclear weapons. The world, including China, was taken off guard and had to respond quickly to what seemed to be another nuclear test. I have been reluctant in posting my analysis of this event, as it presents a wide plethora of security issues throughout the world. This post will delve into the details – as they are known at the time of posting – of the test and will shed some light on what the possible fallout from the test will be internationally.
At 10am World Earthquake Tracker reported seismic activity registering a 5.1 on the Richter scale, with an epicenter in Punggye-ri, North Korea, the site of the three previous nuclear tests. This was followed by a special announcement from North Korean state television at 12:30pm. The anchor of the program read a statement which said that North Korea has tested its first ever hydrogen bomb. The world was quick to condemn the test, with several nations calling the test a provocation. The White House, about an hour after the special announcement, released a statement saying “We are continuing to monitor the situation in close coordination with our regional partners. We cannot confirm these claims at this time.” The National Security Spokesman Ned Price then continued by saying “We will continue to protect our allies in the region, including the Republic of Korea, and will respond appropriately to any and all North Korean provocations.” The White House was not the only nation to condemn the test, as Japan, Australia, South Korea and even China have come out condemning the test. The United Nations Security Council is also set to conduct an emergency meeting at 11am Wednesday (New York local time) in order to discuss the issue. So what does this test mean for the region and the world? The test has presented the world with a major event to pressure to North Korea. In the long term, however, the test may not see any productive change to the security issues in the region.
This post will be structured differently than any other post I have made so far, as there are several points of view to consider. I will structure this post in the format that will allow me to address the issue from several lenses, by addressing each nation’s view on North Korea’s nuclear program. I will address the statements and implications of this most recent test for the nations that were involved in the Six Party talks – North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Japan, and China. I will then address the skepticism that has risen throughout the world. I am excluding Russia, as I do not know too much about Russian politics.
Obviously, the country that conducted the nuclear test has a huge stake in the outcome of the test. The nuclear program in North Korea is no different. The test today, in North Korean domestic affairs has several implications. It also has many different implications to the foreign affairs of North Korea.
Domestically, Kim Jung-un has been working to consolidate power within his domain. There is no lack of significance of the date of the test, as Kim Jung-un’s birthday is two days from today. This test will be used as boasting tool throughout the celebration of Kim’s birthday, furthering his ability to control the political structure of North Korea. Another way that this will showcase the power of Kim, domestically, is that this test shows that Kim has the ability to do grave damage throughout the world. This test, no matter what happens, will be heralded inside the country. The test comes in the same year that North Korea will convene its 7th Worker’s Party Congress in May. The test, as I stated in an earlier post, will be brought out again during the congress, as it shows the strength of the nuclear program in North Korea. Whether it is confirmed that the test was indeed a hydrogen bomb, the test will assist in strengthening the power of Kim, domestically, and will show the population the strength of the program. The test will be, domestically, utilized by Kim, as he celebrates his birthday in a couple days and at the Worker’s Party Congress in May, as a symbol of his power. It will be used to assist Kim in consolidating power and squashing some of the skepticism that has started to rise throughout his rule. The population of North Korea is already showing the effect that such a move will have, as the population has unified in praising the test. In the long term this test may unify society behind Kim Jung-un, thus ushering in a solid third-generation rule of the Kim dynasty.
Internationally, the test shows North Korea’s defiance. This test comes at a time when inter-Korean relations seemed to be on the positive side, as family reunions occurred a few months ago and talks between the two nations have been happening. Relations with China, while they have been rocky, has also been moving forward, as China has been attempting to resolve tension with North Korea. So what will this test grant North Korea internationally? The answer is simple. This test gives Kim media attention and world wide attention. The test also showcases the defiance of North Korea to the outside world, aligning the test with the Juche philosophy of self-reliance. Internationally, it does not show too much change in North Korean foreign policy, except for one aspect. China was not given advance warning of the test. This showcases the distance that has grown between the two nations.
Internationally, however, North Korea has no intent in using the weapon unless provoked. The most recent test is geared more to the creation of a defense weapon. The biggest fear, internationally, is the proliferation of the technology. This test may also strengthen the resolve of other regimes, which could lead to further nuclear tests throughout the world. The fear internationally should not be on the usage of the bomb. The discussion should be targeted on the issue of the size and type of the bomb, as well as on the possibility of proliferation of the technology throughout the world, to enemies of the United States and allies throughout the world.
In North Korea, the test serves more of a domestic importance, as had many other nuclear tests. With Kim Jung-un being unable to consolidate power within his own nation, this test will provide a symbol of power for Kim’ birthday and the Worker’s Party Congress. Internationally, the test shows several signs of a continued path of defiance of foreign sanctions and policy. The long-term effects of the test will be stronger internally, which means the Kim regime may have a stronger, more unified power base than before.
South Korea will see the brunt of the threat, geographically. The test shows a failed policy in Seoul. However, the government is fearful, as North Korea’s constant barrage of threats are towards South Korea. The military in Seoul is on high alert and Park Geun-hae, the president has promised swift and appropriate retaliation for the test. This sounds fine, but one should recall the mine incident in August. The escalation of the incident fell on the South Korean side, as well as on the North Korean side. A response like the one from that incident may cause more harm than good. The missile test will also put Seoul on edge, as it shows the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear program. With Seoul constantly in the crosshairs of North Korean provocations, the test also shows the constant threat that is North Korea. The response to the showboating and testing must be cautious, however, in order to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula, without having any escalation and possible violence.
This will present an interesting opportunity for South Korea, as it has been on the forefront of media reporting for the event. The NIS will become the main source of information. South Korea must be as strong, if not stronger, in its condemnation of the test. However, its strength must be used more carefully that any other nation, as any quick escalation would cause billions and billions of dollars and millions and millions of lives for South Korea. This will also start the year out on a tough area for inter-Korean relations. South Korea must avoid a rise in tensions throughout the crisis, but it must not let Pyongyang get away with continuing its nuclear program. South Korea will be the epicenter of the world for a few moments, as the world turns to South Korea’s response for inspiration. Carefully using a strong response will show the world that Pyongyang can be stood up to.
The United States
The United States will be one of the nations that the world is turning towards for leadership throughout this crisis. This will place a lot of pressure on the United States to step up and strengthen the current sanctions. The current sanctions regime in place is in response to past three nuclear tests – 2006, 2009, 2013 – and the Sony hack – 2015. This regime will be strengthened, but the question that will remain is to what avail will the stronger sanctions change North Korea’s behavior.
This test places even more pressure on the United States, as it is a clear example of the failure that has been strategic patience. Not only has strategic patience been a failure in the fact that it has fostered a method for North Korea to develop a nuclear weapon. This strategy has also granted North Korea media attention based off its bad behavior. North Korea has been driven to gain the attention of the United States. Currently, this means that North Korea has to go to extremes to gain attention of the world, which, in Kim Jung-un’s eyes, meant a nuclear test.
The United States has been thrown into the spotlight again. As quoted above, the White House is not ready to accept North Korea as a nuclear state. This defiance is what is driving North Korea to continue its pursuit, though this strong man routine may also inspire nations to pursue a similar technique. The United States will be using its strength carefully to inspire the leaders of its allies overseas, such as South Korea and Japan. The United Staes must also pressure China in changing its policy towards North Korea. However, change in such policy is unlikely – see China section for elaboration on Chinese policy towards North Korea.
The United States must be strong in this crisis, which it has done in the face of other nuclear tests from the Kim regime. This will mean that the United States must take the lead throughout its allies in the region. Since the military power of the United States is one of the keys of deterrence, it must maintain its possession, if not strengthen it. However, this must be done carefully, as the North may see a rise in US troops in South Korea as a provocation. Careful strength must be utilized by the United States at this moment.
Japan is seeing the test a breach in security and a violation of in place restrictions on nuclear testing. Japan is also seeing a target on its back, as it has become a part of the criticism from North Korea – for the “comfort women” deal that was reached recently. Japan is also feeling uneasy, as this is not the first time that North Korea has shown distaste in Japan. North Korea still has not forgiven Japan for the occupation of Korea. This has led to many attempts to undermine the Japanese society – from kidnapping Japanese citizens, to firing missiles over Japan and to having fiery rhetoric towards Japan – by North Korea. Shinzo Abe was the first leader to announce his condemnation of the test, showing his stance on North Korea. The Japanese camp will look to work with parties that are more interested in the North – the United States, South Korea and China – in order to contain Pyongyang.
On a more interesting note, the test will put forth an opportunity for South Korea and Japan to unite and strengthen political ties. Hopefully, this will have such an effect, as the two nations have seen a thawing in relations. This also will present the two nations with another focus, outside of historical debates, that may see them unite and boost cooperation between them.
China has been the crux of North Korea’s existence since the Korean War. Food aid, both documented and undocumented, has abundantly crossed over the Tumen and Yalu rivers over the past 70 years. This has placed intense international pressure on China when it comes to issues dealing with North Korea.
China was reluctant to issue a response after the initial announcement of the test. The response, however, was the strongest condemnation. The Chinese government reported, through the statement, that advance notice was not given before the test. Advance warning had also been neglected for the 2013 test, which was also met with strong condemnation from China. China’s responses have not gone past rhetoric.
Despite showing strong condemnation for North Korea’s nuclear program, China is unwilling to give up on the small nation. It criticism runs amuck when the conversation turns towards sanctions and measures that could possibly spell disaster for North Korea. This stems from its viewing North Korea as a buffer state. For China, the worst possible scenario would be a collapse of the regime and the emergence of a strong, capitalist economy on its border. For this reason, China has not given up North Korea, and despite having harsh criticism of the nation’s policy, it constantly works to steer the conversation away from the potential collapse of the Kim regime.
What will change because of this test? I am skeptical that anything will change, long term. As stated in the above paragraph, China needs North Korea to act as a buffer state. Sending aid into North Korea acts to maintain the survivability of the regime, though China is careful to leave most of it undocumented. China, as it has in the past, will look to condemn the test, but when it comes to containment, they will stop short of doing anything that has the possibility to cause regime collapse. By taking this course of action, China has undermined the effort of the sanctions regime implemented by the United Nations.
After the test, several sources started to question the statement from North Korea which said that it had tested a hydrogen bomb. This skepticism started from the South Korean NIS and has spread throughout the world, with several other nations declaring similar findings. Though the test may not have been a full hydrogen bomb, there is no reason to exclude the possibility that it was an attempt to add hydrogen isotope, in a small amount, to their currently existing technology.
Such remarks are made based off primary air tests and the seismological data. In 2013, when North Korea tested its most powerful weapon, the reading was a 4.9 on the Richter scale. The test on January 6 registered a 4.8-5.2, which shows that it is of similar strength to the one tested in 2013. The initial air data also points away from the hydrogen bomb theory. Though we may never know exactly what type of bomb was tested a couple days ago, it is unlikely that it is a full hydrogen bomb.
The test on January 6, 2016 was marked by quick condemnation from around the world. China, the United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea and Australia were among the first and most damning condemnations. A United Nations Security Council emergency meeting was called the day after the test, which also resulted in a strong, international condemnation. Though this places a lot of international pressure on North Korea, it is unlikely to alter its current path of nuclear advancement.
This test also shows the defiance of international mandate that North Korea is constantly working to carry out. With this test, North Korea has also shown that it is not just seeking to have a few bombs in its back pocket, but a full arsenal. Kim Jung-un, however, is seeking to push the program further as a deterrent. He has no intention of using them as an offensive weapon. If Kim switched his rhetoric and uses them offensively, he will be out of power quickly. This is something that Kim knows and restrains him from pulling the trigger first.
The 2016 test will run a course similar to the previous tests. North Korea tests a weapon; the world is quick to condemn the test; sanctions and other methods are put in place in an attempt to contain North Korea. These are all short-term events. In the long run, the status quo will return to pre-test levels, with the addition of maybe one or two more sanctions, limiting the success of the new and previous sanctions. Media coverage will also follow a similar trend, outside of the peninsula. World newspapers will cover the test; then slowly cease to publish coverage of the nation. Short term trends, such as the response and media coverage of the tests are what is hindering the success of the sanctions and other methods of possible containment. They are designed to contain for a short period of time, not for the long haul. In order to see any change in North Korea, there must be a long term plan in place. Without such a plan, how can the world seek to keep North Korea in check.