Those that are most inclined to monitor the country are distractedby David Patrikarakos / September 12, 2016 / Leave a comment
Last Friday, in what was a move clearly calculated to both affront and alarm, North Korea conducted its latest—and most powerful—nuclear test to date.
It was Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear test and, critically, its second this year. It is upping the pace. South Korea, which understandably watches its volatile neighbour with a near pathological vigilance, estimates the yield was at least 10 kilotonnes, other observers put it closer to 20.
Amid the inevitable outpourings of condemnation and hysteria it is worth trying to understand why North Korea conducted this test—and, perhaps more importantly, why now?
Both are difficult questions to answer given North Korea’s notoriously closed society but, placed within the wider geopolitical context and Pyongyang’s past actions, it is possible to discern some sort of logic to what is mostly an illogical and often outright crazed regime.
As Aidan Foster-Carter, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at the University of Leeds, observes, there are two immediate reasons for this. The first is symbolic. 9th September is a national holiday in North Korea, being the founding day of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). What better way to celebrate than with a demonstration of the greatest show of strength the state can muster? Especially in a nation so reliant on iconic chauvinism.
The second, deeper reason is more illuminating. The North Koreans may be more skilled in walling themselves up from the world than engaging with it but they know enough to understand when global politics is going through a transition period. Put simply: those that are most inclined to monitor North Korea are distracted.
The United States is led by a lame duck President entering his last 100-odd days of office, while the country and its political elites are preoccupied with its most intense and polarising election in decades. In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye is also, in effect, a lame duck, having lost control of the parliament, while her successor is set to be elected next year. All in all, it’s a good time for Pyongyangto race ahead with its programme to be in a better bargaining position when new administrations come to both Seoul and Washington in 2017.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has always been both defensive and offensive: North Korea was one of the three nations that George W Bush listed as forming an “axis of Evil,” the first of which, Iraq, he proceeded to invade. Like Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, North Korea’s former leader Kim Jong Il was determined his country wouldn’t face a similar fate and put nuclear weapons (however rudimentary) at the core of his nation’s military doctrine.
Then there is the programme’s more aggressive nature. North Korea’s conventional forces remain enormous in terms of manpower but their technology is old and vastly inferior to even its closest rival South Korea. Nuclear weapons are, to the regime, actually cheaper and a far better guarantee than its conventional forces. The programme embodies what Foster-Carter describes as “militant mendicancy”—in effect the programme allows North Korea to be “bought off”—as was clearly shown in its negotiations with former US President Bill Clinton who offered Pyongyang all sorts of inducements to keep its programme under control. As Foster-Carter says: “they like doing bad stuff and being paid to stop.”
As in Iran, national pride—and the legitimisation of authority it brings—plays a huge role, too. North Korea may be starving but at least it’s a nuclear power with the capability to (finally) launch a satellite into space.
Finally, there is the question of continuity. North Korea is now on its third leader, the 32-year old Kim Jong-un. Given his youth, and with it, his relative inexperience, he faces a big job filling the shoes of his father Kim Jong-il who ruled North Korea for almost 20 years. Loyalty to Kim Jong-un is largely predicated on loyalty to his father and grandfather and the nuclear programme is central to their legacy, so he has little choice but to continue, and if possible, to improve upon it.
And in the process he has thrown a large brick into a troubled international geopolitical pond. South Korea, like King Lear, now rages impotently at the heavens threatening that it can reduce Pyongyang “to ashes” if need be. Meanwhile, as Foster-carter notes, an important rift has opened up between China and Washington over Thaad—a powerful US anti-missile defense that Washington wishes to place in South Korea to protect Seoul. The issue is that it has a deep-seeing radar that can penetrate far into China, which regards it as altering the strategic balance in north east Asia. Reluctant to anger China Seoul wavered for two years before finally, after its neighbour’s last test, agreeing—much to China’s displeasure. So while everyone around it is either squabbling or concerned with its own problems North Korea has pressed doggedly on. It seems unlikely it will stop any time soon.