North Korea has defied the world again. What does its latest nuclear blast mean for regional and global security?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang, 10 October 2015. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)


North Korea highlighted its ability to surprise and defy friends and foes alike last week with a nuclear blast the isolated state said was a successful test of a hydrogen bomb.

While the hydrogen bomb claim may not survive scientific scrutiny, the January 6 blast was the strongest of North Korea’s four nuclear tests since 2006 and represents an advance in a nuclear program the international community has been trying to halt for a quarter century.

We asked three News-Decoder correspondents for their views on the significance of North Korea’s latest nuclear test.

Fallout from “the H-bomb of justice”

by Paul Eckert

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, 33, has presented the world with a new threat at a time when key players are struggling with crises in the Middle East and Ukraine.

The challenges are particularly acute in an East Asia already grappling with territorial disputes pitting an assertive China against Japan and other neighbors who are security allies of the United States.

With the push of a button, Kim has injected his country into the U.S. presidential election debate and added a thorny issue to a menu of U.S.-China disputes over Chinese island-building in the South China Sea, cyber security and human rights.

For U.S. President Barack Obama, North Korea’s nuclear test gives fresh ammunition to critics of his foreign policy when he is trying to sell his Iran nuclear deal to a reluctant Congress. Critics argue that the Obama policy known as “strategic patience” towards North Korea has done nothing to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear advance.

Democratic Party presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, Obama’s first secretary of state, is coming under fire for her role as the architect of strategic patience. Some detractors even link Clinton to her husband Bill Clinton’s diplomacy, which produced a 1994 pact with North Korea that aimed to put a stop to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions but merely slowed them down.

The finger-pointing within the United States is matched by the trading of blame between Washington and Beijing, which have held up North Korea as an example of how the two powers can cooperate on global security problems while managing competing interests and conflicts in other areas.

A China problem?

U.S. officials including Secretary of State John Kerry have called for China, the North’s only ally and source of most of its energy and food, to end business as usual with North Korea and to tighten controls over cross-border trade and financial flows under UN sanctions passed after Pyongyang’s nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.

Some U.S. analysts insist that North Korea is really a China problem. They say Beijing will in the heat of a crisis support UN Security Council sanctions, then as the immediate danger passes, work to water down sanctions and ultimately turn a blind eye to Chinese traders and banks that facilitate prohibited North Korean activities.

China has pushed back against U.S. criticism, arguing that many parties share responsibility for the nuclear stalemate. Beijing argues that getting back to the negotiating table and to six-nation talks that North Korea has boycotted for seven years will require Washington to offer Pyongyang concrete benefits in return for giving up its atomic arsenal.

The nuclear test, however, can also be seen as a setback to China, which spent much of 2015 trying to improve relations with North Korea that have been strained for much of Kim Jong Un’s four years in power.

China now faces the prospect of tighter U.S. security cooperation with South Korea and Japan, including reinvigorated discussion of a regional missile-defense system that is anathema to Beijing. Those U.S. allies are also mulling their own bilateral policies to punish North Korea, with Seoul swiftly resuming cross-border propaganda broadcasts despised by Pyongyang.

Kim sees nuclear weapons as the key to the survival of the regime.

In Washington, lawmakers are mounting a new push for bilateral sanctions on North Korean state agencies and individuals not covered by earlier curbs, and on third-country actors seen as enabling the North’s proliferation, including Chinese entities.

U.S. efforts at the United Nations this week are expected to focus on adding new international sanctions and tightening existing ones against North Korea, which still faces only a fraction of the strictures imposed on Iran to induce Tehran to make concessions in nuclear negotiations with the international community.

Kim Jong Un sees nuclear weapons as the key to the survival of the 67-year regime, founded by his grandfather Kim Il-sung — a view it believes is supported by the example of Libyan strongman, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who lost his rule and his life not long after scrapping a nuclear weapons program.

Some experts say Kim’s decision to test a bomb in the face of global opposition makes sense at least to him, because the explosions allow him to improve his so-far small and crude arsenal, while joining the nuclear club has made his population, steeped in nationalism, rally around his regime.

At the same time, diplomatic and economic fallout from what state media hail as the “H-bomb of justice” could plunge the country into deeper isolation and undercut Kim’s hopes of revitalizing a North Korean economy whose poor performance has kept its people on the sidelines of the post-World War Two economic miracle in East Asia.

International huffing and puffing as North Korea plays with fire

by Jonathan Thatcher

North Korea has one of the most perplexing governments on the planet. Paradoxically, it is also one of the most predictable.

In the almost seven decades since its founding at the start of the Cold War, the world’s first communist dynasty has had time to perfect a strategy of militaristic chutzpah that repeatedly wrong foots its enemies, primarily the United States, and ensures its only powerful ally, China, will not desert it.

It is a strategy that can be boiled down to this: pose a threat so apocalyptic that no major power will dare call your bluff. The announcement of a hydrogen bomb test is the most alarming display so far of that strategy.

Absolute ruler Kim Jong Un, like his grandfather and father before him, knows that no matter how much he exasperates Beijing, the collapse of his regime and the buffer it provides between China and U.S. troops based in South Korea is even more terrifying.

For Washington and its allies Japan and South Korea, an unleashed North Korea will cause havoc in the world’s fastest growing economic region and might even, one day, see an attempt to launch a missile at the continental United States.

For all the international huff and puff, North Korea knows that no one is about to blow its house down.

The danger is that the North’s leaders could go a step too far.

This defiance also allows a brutal leadership to cling to its legitimacy by portraying the country’s deepening poverty and isolation, in stark contrast to the bustling economy of neighboring South Korea that it once surpassed, as a righteous sacrifice in the defense against a hostile world.

It is, however, hard to argue that the strategy has brought the hermit state much benefit beyond preserving global seclusion and keeping the Kim family in power.

It has been unable to secure a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War. It has been repeatedly refused a cherished seat at the table of nuclear powers, and its already ravaged economy has been dragged deeper into the abyss by years of international economic sanctions.

The very real danger is that as the North’s leaders keep raising the level of drama to gain the world’s notice, they may go a step too far, and the strategy of never quite going to war will unravel.

A defiant North Korea and a growing threat to U.S. allies

by Jim Wolf

North Korea has shown once again a conviction that it can get away with virtually anything so long as it remains armed with nuclear weapons.

By carrying out its fourth nuclear test, Pyongyang angered both China, its main ally, and the United States, which responded by sending a nuclear-capable B-52 bomber on a low-level flight over South Korea.

U.S. and other experts doubt that the North conducted a true hydrogen bomb test. But the blast showed that the North was prepared to defy long-standing international efforts to curb its nuclear weapons program — even if these are reinforced by stepped-up UN Security Council sanctions, as now seems likely.

It also highlighted what could be a growing threat to U.S. Asian allies, especially Japan and South Korea, as well as to the United States itself.

Washington has been spending billions of dollars a year on an emerging missile defense system whose top raison d’être is the perceived threat from Pyongyang, followed by residual concerns about Iran.

But could the North actually hit the United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a deadly warhead?

Both Iran and North Korea have medium-range ballistic missiles, assessed by U.S. intelligence analysts as capable of delivering a nuclear warhead should such a warhead capability be developed and deployed. But neither country currently is known to have an ICBM capability.

Paul Eckert took up the post of director of English News at Radio Free Asia in Washington in 2015 after a 20-year career with Reuters that included assignments in Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul and Washington.

Jonathan Thatcher is a former Reuters bureau chief for Indonesia and East Timor; Korea; the Philippines; and Russia and the CIS. During more than 37 years in journalism, he was also based in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and Britain.

Jim Wolf was a correspondent for AFP, Jane’s Defence Weekly and Reuters for nearly 40 years based in New York, Paris, Bangkok and Washington. He was Reuters’s defense technology correspondent from 2001 to 2013.

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