In the wake of an alleged thermonuclear test by North Korea, David Watts considers its long-term implications and the reactions of the international community.
North Korea’s reported hydrogen bomb test was met with derision when its yield was revealed to be no more than that of the North’s previous atomic blast.
Lambasting it as a damp squib seemed an effective way of putting Pyongyang in context—little more than a continuing annoyance that was not going to change the global political landscape. But it was also a way of dealing with the most abject failure of modern international diplomacy.
Despite decades of on again-off-again talks and agreements, the North’s nuclear programme, backed up by one of the world’s biggest armies, remains basically in place, to be wheeled out at will when its suits the Kim dynasty to pressure the West and China when it needs food aid or other assistance.
But in belittling the tin pot dictator, it later became apparent that his Western critics may have underestimated him: after all, the next objective of the Pyongyang nuclear programme is to miniaturise its nuclear devices so that they can be placed atop intercontinental ballistic missiles and on other missiles fired from submarines.
In recent months there have been two tests of missiles fired from submarines, the last one appearing to indicate that the North had succeeded in achieving a near-vertical trajectory for the missile as it left the launch tube.
Is it really surprising, then, that the North’s nuclear scientists were seeking to make their devices more amenable to deployment on missiles by reducing the immediate output as a means of detonating a hydrogen charge?
The other Pyongyang diplomatic device, deployed regularly over the years, is to launch one of its nuclear escapades at a time when the world’s eyes, and particularly America’s, are focussed on another controversial nuclear programme—Iran’s.
Lo and behold, that is exactly what is happening again, presumably with the objective of diverting Washington’s attention. In reality, they probably need not have bothered, given America’s flaccid ‘strategic patience’ policy in regard to North Korea.
But American diplomats could perhaps be forgiven for not rushing into action—apart from fly-overs by US jets in South Korea and more sanctions at the UN—because the latter can never be very effective until the Chinese seal the border and get serious about bringing Pyongyang to heel.
But all parties in retrospect may come to regard the young Mr Kim’s latest venture as a turning point.
Although China’s role historically may leave a lot to be desired, in terms of seeking a solution and actually making sure it sticks, this time Beijing is giving every appearance of staying away from the party.
Reports indicate that this time Mr Kim omitted to tell the Chinese of his plans in advance. There may have been cross words in private between the two capitals as a result but there is every indication that China will not take part in the next round of diplomacy with the international community.
That is, if brilliant reporting by my South Korean colleague and friend, Shim Jae-hoon, develops in the direction now indicated.
According to Mr Shim, a week after the blast China had yet to respond to South Korean President Park Guen-hye’s urgent request to speak to President Xi. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, the Chinese ambassador to Seoul stayed away from a South Korean briefing on the subject that was attended by diplomats from all the other interested parties. China was the only representative of the six-party talks on North Korea not to attend, the others being the two Koreas, the US, Japan and Russia.
The South Korean leader had urgent telephone conversations with both President Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, while Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, also responded to her call.
That was scant reward for President Park for her assiduous courting of China over the past months, including her attendance at the Chinese ceremonies to mark the end of the Second World War, which were boycotted by the West and many Asian countries, including Japan. The Korean leader returned from that visit with the impression that she had Chinese support and that would include re-unification under South Korean auspices.
When Beijing finally got back to the South Koreans, it was through their foreign minister Wang Yi, who had nothing more to offer than the usual pablum that there would be no interference from China beyond maintaining ‘peace and stability on the Korean peninsula’ and using ‘dialogue’ rather than pressure.
Seoul has, meanwhile, gone its own way with the resumption of propaganda broadcasting across the border, which particularly irritates Pyongyang because of its effect on northern morale.
So with the United States on the sidelines and the Chinese stepping back, the peninsula and its future appear to be entering a dangerous vacuum, a situation which has preceded many previous world crises, only this is likely to be a nuclear one.
Already the Pentagon is said to be considering the deployment of nuclear weapons onto South Korean soil and the possibility of introducing the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (or THAAD) anti-missile system, which will raise tensions with China because Beijing believes the system is really aimed at them.
But, perhaps more importantly, it will encourage a newly-empowered Japanese military to go one step further on the road to nuclear capability under the right-wing Abe administration.
As Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, put it: ‘China is engaged in a game of good cop, bad cop. North Korea is China’s client. North Korea wouldn’t have got this far if China didn’t want them to.
‘Perhaps what we have to do is get out of this dynamic with China. We’ve got to work with Japan more. Perhaps encourage Japan to go that final mile and actually become a nuclear power. They’ve been revising their constitution anyway (to permit greater use of military power). That’s the only kind of thing that China would recognise.’
Mr Kim’s adventure may turn out to be more exciting than even he intended.