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…