The Korean Central News Agency and Korean Central Television announced the success of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test to the world with their usual aplomb and anti-America swagger, demonstrating once again how North Korea is just as entertaining as it is dangerous – and the bigger picture reveals why.
The immediate cause for alarm was the claim that North Korea had tested a thermonuclear weapon, far more devastating than your usual run-of-the-mill nuclear device. Since the test, there has been fierce conjecture on the actual nature of this bomb, given North Korea’s past proclivity to embellish the truth a bit. What everyone seems to agree on is that there was a nuclear test, and some element of hydrogen fusion quite possibly featured in it.
The most important takeaway here is not that North Korea, despite its grandiloquence, fell short of testing an actual hydrogen bomb. It is that by mastering an aspect of it, further strides have been made in its nuclear build-up.
North Korea’s ability to develop an H-bomb or its long-range capability to launch an attack on mainland US are therefore significant but subsidiary characteristics of the main event, and currently, they run the risk of deflecting attention from the principal issue: the growth of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, a remarkable feat achieved in a relatively short span of time and under conditions of grave economic duress.
Now imagine a scenario in which North Korea, weary of its monetary exertions, decides to rake in some profit on the international nuclear black-market by trading in technology, know-how, or fissile material. Whether the buyer is a state or non-state actor is immaterial, as is the fillip this gives nuclear proliferation and terrorism – business is business.
Successive unilateral and multilateral sanctions have failed to make North Korea change track. It has repeatedly flouted international rules, and the few times it has been invited to the negotiating table, it has demanded further compromises or reneged on its commitments. The last attempt to open diplomatic channels of communication – the 2012 ‘Leap Day Agreement’ – fell through for the very same reason. This tendency to frustrate diplomatic efforts means that North Korea, at least in the public eye, has not figured very prominently in Barack Obama’s foreign policy agenda – ‘strategic patience’, deciphered often as the ‘do nothing’ approach being a case in point – or that US strategy in general towards North Korea is seriously lacking.
This is because what North Korea once saw as a bargaining chip with the US – its nuclear weapons – has now become a central symbol of regime survival, making it that much harder to negotiate its dismantlement. The regime has in the recent past also been witness to the US and its allies prevailing over ‘recalcitrant’ states, such as Libya under Gaddafi, whose undoing is said to have been initiated with the roll-back of the state’s nuclear weapons programme. North Korea has learnt that this can be a very costly mistake, and on this basis, modalities for negotiations as they are currently envisaged are set up for a fall.
Central to this frustration is China, a hard-hitter in international politics, and as good fortune would have it, one in North Korea’s small group of friends. Often referred to as North Korea’s greatest ally, China is highly unlikely to be very pleased with these developments on its border. Beijing certainly has some leverage with Pyongyang due to the dependency created through trade linkages, but exercises no direct clout over North Korean politics as is often wrongly attributed to it.
China has in the recent past been party to certain sanctions against North Korea, but been wary of going the distance with the US at the Security Council in this regard. Its fear is the collapse of North Korea in the face of unforgiving sanctions, which would open up a veritable floodgate of refugees into China, not to mention bring South Korea, a US ally, right up to its border. However, with a more trenchant doomsday scenario gaining momentum right next door – what with North Korea gleefully amassing nuclear weapons – China might be forced to consider negotiating its position.
China has the wherewithal to attempt to put the brakes on North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. This could mean a hardened position on sanctions, or facilitating North Korea-US talks, or both. Interestingly, as a demonstration of might, the North Korean test signals also an “either this (h-bomb) or that” proposition, and it is the onus of the so-called international community to figure out what the “that” or concessionary gesture could be.
While immediate responses in the form of military displays are all very well, a longer-term strategy is of paramount importance. China has an important role to play in this, and a sustained and comprehensive China-US dialogue on North Korea is the primary bilateral option to invest in. For the moment, Secretary of State John Kerry’s public condemnation of Beijing’s ineffective handling of North Korea is a surprising departure from the norm, and is hopefully suggestive of enhanced bilateral coordination on an issue that can no longer be left on the back burner.