The third North Korean nuclear test occurred just before midday on the 12th. The necessary technical preparations had long since been completed; all that remained was to press the button, which they opted to do just as East Asia’s Lunar New Year holiday was ending.
One of the North’s outlying media outlets, the weekly Tongil Sinbo, had said that persons publishing claims of an imminent test were jumping to conclusions; however, the world did manage to remember what happened before Christmas, when the state media reported that December’s missile launch window was being extended just hours before the launch itself took place.
It may be that North Korea’s preferred timing for this third test slipped a little, but ultimately they still showed us that they are not about to be moved by international opprobrium, and that they remain largely immune to critical Chinese rhetoric.
Evidently, Kim Jong Eun is a believer in nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantor of his regime’s security, just like his father was. What this means, of course, is that while he has taken a relatively firm grip on power domestically, anxieties about his long-term survival remain. He and his coterie of advisors are worried that if they let go of the nuclear weapons, world powers will come to regard the regime itself as a bad joke. More UN Security Council sanctions are surely nothing compared to what they may face without nuclear weapons, they think.
In other words, nuclear weapons are an extreme survival tactic, one that sacrifices 23 million people so as to guarantee the power of a privileged few.
Those in Washington, Brussels, London and other world capitals who had somehow convinced themselves otherwise can now be absolutely certain that the leadership’s stance, whereby nuclear warheads mounted on missiles must be the nation’s main goal irrespective of the international sanctions they incite, is not going to change. Pyongyang hopes that repeated long-range missile launches and nuclear tests will slowly, but surely, push the U.S. towards signing a peace agreement, and that they can pick up some economic benefits along the way. Given our full knowledge of this strategy, it is abundantly clear that the Six-Party Talks, which sought the step-by-step denuclearization of North Korea under international oversight coupled to sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, are not a realistic answer.
However, China does remain important. The reason why UN sanctions resolutions have not been particularly effective to date is because China has always held the back door open and supported North Korea to the extent necessary to ensure the survival of their system. But getting angry with Beijing will not help. Rather, our work will have to become more intelligent, creative and persistent. China’s new leadership must be cajoled into accepting that a firm stance on the North Korean nuclear issue is to their advantage. That should not be so hard now, of course; China is fearful that sooner or later North Korea’s behavior will trigger the nuclear dominoes in Northeast Asia.
Meanwhile, of course, President-elect Park Geun Hye’s “Korean Peninsula trust process” has fallen over straight out of the blocks. Park faces an uphill battle promoting a conciliatory policy of any kind from here. However, the point of the ‘trust process’ never was to compensate North Korea for its misconduct; it is a policy designed to encourage engagement through cooperation and exchanges. Therefore, it is important to sustain a balance at this stage, and not discard the entire concept.
Nevertheless, Park’s efforts have a clear limit, and as such they must run in parallel with greater efforts to engage the people of North Korea more directly. If President-elect Park fails to see this point then she needs to be reminded, as we remember above all what the late Hwang Jang Yop said: nuclear weapons are a mere reflection of the North Korean regime itself, and fighting with a reflection is surely futile.