Analysis: Why did North Korea Kim Jong-un press the hydrogen bomb button now?

January 7, 2016 4:08 am

 Kim
Jong-un (right) with Chinese official Liu Yunshan. The North Korean
leader has slapped his country’s most important trading partner in the
face.

When hinted it had a hydrogen bomb last month – twice –
it was largely brushed off as bluster. Now that it’s claiming to have
actually tested one, it is being taken a lot more seriously and a storm
of outraged alarm, criticism and threats of sanctions are once again
raining down on its head.
Mission accomplished? Quite possibly, from Pyongyang’s perspective.
Skepticism
remains high over exactly what was detonated yesterday, but North
Korea’s ruling regime is probably the most adept in the world at
calculating the benefits and risks of ratcheting up tensions and
alienating even its closest allies to get what it wants. And what does
it want? That’s extremely hard to say since North Korea’s other standout
skill is keeping its real motives as murky as possible.
To much of the world, the reasons why the test was a bad idea seem obvious.

Pyongyang has almost certainly exposed itself to even tougher
international sanctions on its already sputtering and underperforming
economy. By ignoring China’s efforts to discourage it from conducting
nuclear tests, it has very publicly slapped its most important trading
partner, and its key political cushion against the United States, in the
face. It has strengthened the hand of its adversaries in the United
Nations, who could push harder for punitive measures over human rights
violations.
But at the heart of every decision the regime makes
is one overriding concern: the survival of the regime itself, which
depends on the glorification of its leader, Kim Jong-un, and the ability
to keep at bay the United States and its allies, which Pyongyang
considers to be an existential threat.
The North, officially the
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, has long claimed it has the right
to develop nuclear weapons to defend itself against the US, an
established nuclear power against whom it has been in a state of war for
more than 65 years. But to build a credible nuclear threat, the North
must explode new nuclear devices – including miniaturised ones – so its
scientists can improve their designs and technology.
Nuclear-tipped
missiles could then be used as deterrents and diplomatic bargaining
chips with the United States, which Pyongyang has long pushed to
withdraw its troops from the region and to sign a peace treaty formally
ending the Korean War.
“This test is a measure for self-defence
the DPRK has taken to firmly protect the sovereignty of the country and
the vital right of the nation from the ever-growing nuclear threat and
blackmail by the US-led hostile forces,” the Korean Central Agency
said in a story announcing the detonation.
In a general sense,
keeping the threat of invasion fresh in the minds of North Koreans is a
tried-and- true method of bolstering unity and deflecting attention from
other issues, such as the economy. Pyongyang’s claim it was testing an
H-bomb is also a classic move – what better way to boost the dramatic
impact, and drum up national pride, than to trumpet that the North has a
stronger, scarier weapon than ever before?
Hazel Smith, director
of the International Institute of Korean Studies at the University of
Central Lancashire in the UK, said that on the diplomatic front North
Korea does not worry about angering anyone.
“Every nuclear test
that they’ve had has caused massive consternation in China,” said Smith,
who lived in North Korea in the late 1990s and early 2000s, working for
the United Nations. “But the North Koreans have never been susceptible
to letting China tell them what to do.”
Instead, the North Korean
Government, she says, believes the military is the key to regime
survival and that giving up nuclear weapons development – as Muammar
Gaddafi did in Libya – simply leads to a government’s downfall.
“The
North Koreans are not led by diplomatic strategy anymore. They are led
by a view that the military is what allows the regime to survive,” she
said. “You have a group of [ruling] families who don’t want to see their
power go, who don’t want to end up in [the International Criminal Court
in] The Hague.”
By going ahead with the test, Kim – whose birthday is Friday – might well be playing to that domestic audience.
North
Korea’s ruling party, fresh off of a huge celebration to mark its 70th
anniversary in October, will hold its first congress in 36 years in May.
The event, strongly hyped in the North Korean media, will be watched
closely by North Korean elites and North Korea watchers abroad for signs
of whether the young Kim – still in his early 30s – will step out of
his father’s and grandfather’s shadows and assert his own leadership
more boldly.
If the international fallout from the test doesn’t
prove to be too unmanageable, having it under his belt could allow Kim
to go into that meeting with bragging rights that neither of his
predecessors had, along with a bolstered position among North Korea’s
powerful military and nuclear weapons bureaucracies.
John Delury,
a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said Pyongyang has little
going on diplomatically with Seoul and warming ties last year with
Beijing did not go very far. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has
made clear it isn’t interested in improving ties with North Korea unless
Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons programme.
“So he takes a
little bit of a blow” by infuriating friends and enemies alike, Delury
said, but in return North Korea gets immense international attention,
Kim can claim a major new weapon and powerful officials inside his own
regime are placated.

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