North Korea’s nuclear test: a trigger for regional conflict?

What is the rationale behind North Korea's third nuclear test – and what exactly does it mean for the security of the wider region and the interests of China, the US, Russia and Europe?  

North Korea has carried out its third nuclear test since 2006, and the world perceives it as yet another “provocation”. It can be safely assumed that if this international outcry intensifies, leaders in Pyongyang will smile as they would have achieved everything they could hope for. They have shaken up international politics and have made the world take notice that the DPRK is still alive and kicking and a factor to be reckoned with.

For North Korean leaders, timing is a political art form. Provocations often happen when a distraction is likely to deflect any move by the targets of this provocation, or simply as a symbolic message. A classic example remains the seizing of the U.S.S. Pueblo spy ship off North Korea’s coast, which happened in January 1968 at the height of the Vietnam war. But one might also consider the shelling of Yeonpyeong island in November 2010, just when China was going through a wave of incidents and nationalist mobilization against Japan at its peak. Small North Korea, the “shrimp among whales”, calculated it could move in the wake of big China and fire a shot from behind. Neither South Korea nor the US reacted as both were mesmerized by the bigger picture in the east China Sea.

North Korea also has a talent for selecting a symbolic occasion. The launch (mostly botched up) of a fleet of short to midrange ballistic missiles just in time for the 4th of July celebration in 2006, and again in 2009, leaves little doubt about the ability to get a message across. Both of these strategies can be observed currently. North Korea’s successful third attempt to launch a satellite has happened last December, just days before the presidential election in South Korea, demonstrating resilience to the average south Korean voter. Its new nuclear test is conducted on the eve of President Obama’s first State of the Union address after his re-election. Not coincidentally, tensions between China and Korea in the East China Sea are rising after a PLAN ship radar has “lit up” a Japanese navy ship just a few days ago.

Pyongyang has also mastered the art of crossing lines – but without crossing the “red line” that’s drawn in front of it. In this view, even failures become successes. The total fizzle of Pyongyang’s first nuclear test and the aborted missile launches persuade others to do nothing or almost nothing. In practice they serve an important purpose: the world gets used to living with North Korean action. This time however it is the size and nature of the test that remains ambiguous. Slightly bigger than the previous test, it still remains very limited for a plutonium bomb – and this could well suggest another partial dud. But Pyongyang boasts about having achieved miniaturization – eg a deliverable weapon – and if this proves to be true, then the test has most likely open a new avenue, that of enriched uranium. This would be a quantum leap, both towards a deliverable weapon and eventual proliferation: the only two real “red lines” remaining.

None of the above should deter us from observing the possibility of reform in Pyongyang: there have been changes at the top of the military and intelligence caste, and changes in economic policy and propaganda. Kim Jung-on has even made a direct appeal to the United States – the fact that North Korea informed both China and the United States in advance of its test (but not Seoul…) is highly significant. The regime is defying but also reaching for the region’s two big whales.

The failure of China and the US

Let’s cut the hypocrisy about provocation and indignation, and consider the following facts. China’s double act – holding North Korea in check while advancing its own pawns in the East and South China Sea – cannot succeed. It has only worked with Seoul, where the hope of enlisting China to restrain North Korea has encouraged president Lee Myung-bak’s surprising turn around against Japan and his show of defiant nationalism. South Korea’s recent campaign against Japan is a boon to Beijing in its own propaganda campaign. But why should Pyongyang accept to pay the price tag? As the North Koreans have on occasions reminded the Chinese, their own nuclear program is born out of the same calculus that fuelled China’s nuclear program in the mid-1950s. North Korea has no intention of letting Beijing dictate its own strategic needs. So China cannot have its cake and eat it – practice borderline behaviour for itself and urge restraint on a state that is not quite a client.

Washington is also reaping a grim reward. Over the past years it diplomatically helped deliver Taiwan to China. The US also shirks direct involvement in the China-Japan controversy over islands it once handed back to Japan. It has repeatedly sent the message that conflict avoidance is its top priority. If China is openly testing the limits of the US -Japan alliance – why should Pyongyang believe that it is at risk of military action from the United States?

There remains one policy avenue that has not been tested: that of a fully fledged opening to Pyongyang, which might induce a Burma-like turnaround by the regime. The North hints at this possibility, but the price is probably too high, and the rewards are quite low. There are not many significant natural resources in North Korea, and the incentives for business are very limited. South Korea – the enemy of Pyongyang as this is in essence an endless civil war – cannot achieve an opening up because the North fears the consequences of a thaw. And any eventual U.S. diplomatic presence in Pyongyang – for that’s what we are talking about – could well lead to an increase in Chinese support for the regime – as the Chinese do not want to lose this useful buffer state.

Russia: a neglected actor?

The most viable option is not a return to the Six-Party Talks which Beijing tirelessly promotes. The talks have not taken place in four years – and even then they were mostly a “pantomime”. It is not the key to the problem that lies in Beijing, it is the lock. China wants simultaneously to own North Korea, to deliver its compliance to basic international demands and to preserve the regime. Three goals that cannot be achieved simultaneously.

Instead, the United States, South Korea and perhaps Europe should look to the other big actor in the region: Russia. It once was the key backer of the DPRK. It has a common border, and it would enjoy enormous economic benefits from new land links to South Korea for rail developments and possibly a gas pipeline. It remains a Security Council actor, which could counter the fear in Pyongyang that the U.S. will inevitably play the regime change card one day. And Russia cannot be entirely happy with the prospect of unchallenged Chinese influence in the Far East. Ever since the 17th century, it has sought a balance of influence.

The only other option is a massive return by the US to a coercive diplomacy backed by a credible threat of force. This would be a wholly new dimension for the US pivot, one that commits the US and its allies to long-lasting regional stand-off with China: in a pinch, China cannot accept the military taming of its buffer state neighbour.

On balance, and apart from short term speeches, the first option is much more preferable. An unprecedented opening of North Korea can be achieved by providing incentives to Pyongyang, enlisting Russia as an alternative partner to China and finally convincing Pyongyang that its security and survival depend on change and reform.

But if we do nothing, the regional order will suffer death by a thousand cuts. China’s maritime revisionism already suggests that this may happen. Dragged down by their economic woes, the US and Europe would like to wish away this significant rise of tension in North-east Asia – they need a partnership with cash-rich China. If they close one eye (in the case of the US) or two (Europe), they will be faced with a situation spiralling out of control.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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