Regional Tremors: North Korea’s Third Nuclear Test

It is the third nuclear test after the efforts of 2006 and 2009, but the testing of a 10 kiloton device by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPKR) at 12 p.m. local time has sent jitters through the Northeast Asian region.

The fear here lies in how capable Pyongyang’s nuclear threat is, at least in terms of delivery. The bomb, it would seem, is small enough to be mounted on a mid to long-range missile. The military enthusiasts in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo will be rushing off budget proposals for increased missile defense.

The state-run KCNA news agency released a statement confirming the test. “It was confirmed that the nuclear test that was carried out at a high level in a safe and perfect manner using a miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force that previously, did not pose any negative impact on the ecological environment.”

Irrespective of what is decided by the UN Security Council, countries in the vicinity of the DPRK have warned that stern measures will be taken. So far, these are of the economic variety, though Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has suggested that “we consider every possible way to address this issue, including our own sanctions, while co-operating with other countries.” Beijing will be ever watchful to make sure that such sanctions, at least those proposed through the Security Council, will be modified.

The deepest worry here lies in the knock on effects of a viable DPRK nuclear capability. South Korea and Japan might consider going nuclear, something they are more than capable of doing. Washington will frown upon such actions, but they will have little say over domestic opinions in those countries.

Proliferation has a habit of being self-perpetuating and rapid, given the necessary triggers. Otherwise, the focus in North East Asia has tended to be on the use of efficient conventional deterrence, underpinned by US capabilities. With an increasing interest in Washington’s strategic “pivot” to the Asia Pacific, emphasis is also being placed on such conventional capabilities.

The issue of the DPRK and its nuclear option has baffled and bewildered policy wonks. Much discussion on the subject is one of reaction: curbing North Korea, isolating it in the hope that it will collapse. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has shown no desire of going quietly, and the test is an affirmation, if nothing else, that his regime means business. This is guns, and missiles, before butter.

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The old and tired formulas are being trotted out again – the use of Beijing’s much exaggerated leverage over Pyongyang, to take one example.  “China has a dilemma,” suggested the editors of the Beijing Communist language newspaper Global Times. “We are further away from the goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and there’s no possible way for us to search for a diplomatic balance between North Korea and South Korea, Japan and the US.”

Bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table is simply not in the cards of the relevant powers in the NE Asian region. It should be. Pyongyang has made no secret of the fact that it wants a negative security assurance from Washington, an injunction favoring its sovereignty. This was made acutely clear after the invasion of Iraq by American-led forces in 2003. It is abrasive American might, rather than South Korean intransigence, that concerns Pyongyang most.

The test suggests that the North Korean weapons program is moving into a phase of miniaturization. While the program remains crude, such a step creates further risks of proliferation. As ever, a nuclear potential is as much about bluff as it is about actual capability.

The danger here is how far that bluff will be taken by the DPRK’s neighbors. For decades, the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union was based on assumptions of “missile gaps” and “star wars” capabilities. Stockpiles grew in anticipation of an apocalyptic show down. It is precisely such fictions that have a dangerous habit of being self-fulfilling.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com.