Pyongyang’s test a show of force when world looking the other way

January 8, 2016 4:06 pm

 The
detonation angered its traditional ally China as well as earning
denunciations from historic rivals elsewhere in and in the United
States and Europe. Photo / AP

once again demonstrated its mastery of timing and exposed
the limits of any international response as it caught the world
off-guard with its surprise nuclear test.
The detonation angered
its traditional ally China as well as earning denunciations from
historic rivals elsewhere in Asia and in the United States and Europe.
The
event may have been billed as an early present for Kim Jong Un, the
North Korean leader, who celebrates his birthday today. But it will not
have been his personal calendar that determined the timing.
For
all the condemnation it is facing, Pyongyang carefully unleashed its
latest show of nuclear muscle at a time when minds elsewhere are focused
on other international crises.
Kim, a young leader still keen to
signal his grasp on power, will also have been looking towards his
domestic audience ahead of what is expected to be the first party
congress in 35 years in May.

“Advancement of North Korea’s nuclear programme is a pillar of
Kim’s legitimacy,” said Yanmei Xie, an Asia analyst with the
International Crisis Group. “It is inconceivable to see Kim reverse this
track unless he can be convinced that failure to denuclearise
jeopardises the survival of his regime.” And so his regime has forged
ahead with its fourth nuclear test, apparently confident that its
survival will not be endangered.
In Europe, governments are
focused on the refugee crisis and events in the Middle East,
particularly given the escalating crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Pyongyang
may well have calculated that Barack Obama is entering his final year
as US President seeking legacy achievements and will have little
appetite for a fresh confrontation with North Korea as he continues to
struggle with the hangover of American conflicts in Iraq and
Afghanistan.
But most crucial to Pyongyang is the reaction of
China, the one country that could pull the plug on the regime by ending
its financial support.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman made it clear at the daily briefing that Beijing had no advance warning of the test.
Beijing
is also concerned about unrest at home over the uncertain economic
situation and will shy away from any course of action that might provoke
domestic disquiet, analysts in the region believe.

If China has a greater fear than North Korea’s growing nuclear capability, it is the ramifications of the country’s collapse.

And
as Xie noted, if China has a greater fear than North Korea’s growing
nuclear capability, it is the ramifications of the country’s collapse.
“China
keeps the Kim regime afloat with fuel supply, food assistance, and an
opening out of diplomatic and economic isolation. It is difficult to
imagine that China is ready to abandon Kim even after another nuclear
test, even though the relations will experience a deepening chill,” she
said.
“For Beijing, a nuclear armed North Korea is uncomfortable
and disturbing, but a regime collapse in Pyongyang exposes China to mass
chaos next door and a potentially united Korean Peninsula. This could
extend Washington’s influence northward to China’s doorstep, a situation
that is outright frightening for Beijing.”
Toshimitsu Shigemura,
a professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University and an authority on the North
Korean leadership, said that he believed North Korea was looking at a
three-month time frame to improve relations with Beijing.
“I
believe that by carrying out the test now, Mr Kim has three months to
soothe relations with China, which is still his most important ally,” he
said.
“North Korea has announced that it will hold its first
party congress in 35 years in May and Mr Kim may not feel that he has
done enough to cement his position, so showing that he now has a
hydrogen bomb is calculated to significantly boost his standing.”
Rah
Jong Yil, a former head of South Korean intelligence, expressed doubt
that the response would differ significantly from previous crises.
“This
has come as a serious shock in South Korea and my sense is that there
are no feasible options to stop Pyongyang on this path. The
international community will condemn these actions, but we have no
effective way of counteracting this development. Even China, which has
acted as a stabilising force in the past, does not have so many cards to
play.”
Shigemura expects Pyongyang to be more conciliatory again as the year progresses.
That
would echo the tried-and-tested approach by the regime over several
decades that has promised detente and cooperation but served only to buy
time for Pyongyang to develop nuclear weapons and the long-range
missiles with which to deliver to them.
North Korea may also seek
to extract concessions from its enemies in the past, heightening
international tensions to then demand aid in return for appearing to
back down.
“Mr Kim wants to negotiate from a position of strength
and he has been closely watching the resolution of Iran’s nuclear
situation,” Shigemura added.
“And President Obama is entering his
final year in office and many previous US leaders have tried to make
progress on the Korea question as their terms come to an end. Mr Kim may
very well be expecting the President to do something similar and offer
talks.”

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