Admit that North Korea is a nuclear power now. Its audacity is now more obvious. It sent a message on Monday that it should be taken seriously by the big powers. The message came in the form of a nuclear test and a series of short-and-medium-range missile launches.
This time around the West and North Korea’s neighbours — both hostile and friendly — had to grudgingly acknowledge that the nuclear and the missile tests were a success. Russia said it believed the North Korean nuclear weapon was on the scale of the bombs that the Untied States dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
The success came a little more than a month after North Korea was ridiculed after its setback in launching a satellite, which the US and its allied saw as a long-range missile. The success also came two years and seven months after a not-so-successful nuclear test. But on Monday, North Korea made no mistake.
North Korea has become a bigger problem now for the United States and its allies South Korea and Japan. But equally, if not more, worried are North Korea’s friends such as Russia and China. This week’s nuclear and missile tests were a defining moment in North Korea’s relations with its friends, especially China. For years, China had been defending North Korea and scuttling US moves to get the UN Security Council to impose punitive sanctions on Pyongyang. China is indeed North Korea’s biggest trading partner and its back-stage bridge to the West. But this week, China was angry. China interpreted North Korea’s tests as an indication that Pyongyang would do what it wanted irrespective of Beijing’s concerns.
North Korea probably feels that it is time to break free from China and chart its own independent course.
Chinese leaders were harsh in their response while the Chinese media were unusually critical.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement, admonishing North Korea and saying Beijing was “resolutely opposed” to the tests. The official Chinese media described the tests as “shocking” and called on North Korea to put an end to all activities that might worsen the situation.
Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Institute of Strategy at the Central Party School in Beijing, said North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had gone too far.
“The nuclear test conducted by North Korea offended the core interests of China. Since Kim Jong Il doesn’t attach importance to China, it’s hard to say if China will continue to keep a friendly relationship with North Korea in the future,” the professor said in an interview with the Washington Post.
The Chinese displeasure at North Korea has given some hope to the United States. The Barack Obama administration hopes that China would not block US moves at the United Nations Security Council to bring fresh sanctions on North Korea. In 2006, when the United States wanted to impose tough sanctions on North Korea in the wake of the latter’s nuclear test, China, along with Russia, resisted.
But some analysts believe that China would exercise patience and not betray North Korea.
According to Liu Jiangyong, a professor of Northeast Asia studies at Tsinghua University, no real change in China’s policy is likely. “If China joins other nations in coming down harshly on North Korea, the role of China will be changed from a contact man to the enemy of North Korea. It is in everybody’s interest for China to keep a steady relationship with North Korea, because otherwise no country will have regular contact with Pyongyang,” he said.
North Korea was not naïve to ignore the China factor. It knew that its nuclear and missile tests would make China angry. But it took a calculated risk, which it felt was necessary to stake its claim to membership in the nuclear club and increase its global power, especially its bargaining power vis-à-vis the United States, Japan and South Korea.
North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons are certainly a major headache to the United States and its allies. With regard to Iran’s nuclear programme, the United States has been talking tough and warning of a military response. But with regard to North Korea, a nuclear power now, what approach can the US adopt? A military response could bring about disastrous consequences or set off a nuclear war in the region. The maximum the US could do is to impose economic sanctions and continue talks. The US must devise a new diplomatic strategy to deal with North Korea.
In a way, a maverick North Korea serves the US interests in the region because it offers an excuse for Washington to maintain a strong military presence in South Korea and Japan. Such a strong military presence is also necessary to monitor and check China, which is growing into a powerful military force capable of posing a challenge to the United States’ global military dominance. Beijing detests a strong US military presence in its neighbourhood, especially in view of a possible conflict over Taiwan, an independent pro-US territory, which was once a part of China. So China’s fury over North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests is understandable.
These concerns apart, the United States fears that with North Korea becoming a nuclear power, there is a greater danger to nuclear non-proliferation moves. North Korea, whose economy is in the doldrums largely because of its self-reliance policy, could sell its latest missile and nuclear bombs or technology to countries like Iran and Syria. North Korean watchers say that Pyongyang earns US$ 1.5 billion a year by selling short and medium range missiles to countries, which the United States has labeled as rogue states.
“The concern is not just that they have a nuclear weapon; it’s what they’re going to do with the technology and where it’s going to go. It’s very difficult to have perfect knowledge about who they’re talking to or where they’re sending stuff,” a senior U.S. defence official told the Wall Street Journal.
The United States also knows that Pyongyang’s nuclear power status has increased its bargaining power at any talks aimed at denuclearizing North Korea. The diplomatic process involving North Korea and five other countries — the United States, Russia, South Korea, Japan and China — came to an abrupt end last month after the UN Security Council condemned Pyongyang’s long-range missile launch. North Korea claimed that it was a peaceful launch of a satellite.
With the breakdown of the talks, North Korea ousted UN inspectors from its nuclear site at Yongbyon and vowed not to return to the talks.
Two weeks ago, North Korea warned that it would resume its nuclear programme unless the UN Security Council apologized for its statement condemning the North Korean “satellite” launch. The announcement provoked a tough response from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She said the US would not be blackmailed and would tighten the band around North Korea.
But North Korea on Monday demonstrated that it was not a pushover. Once it flexed its nuclear muscle, North Korea went ahead and issued a warning to South Korea which on Tuesday said that that it would join a US-sponsored international programme to intercept ships suspected of involvement in nuclear proliferation. North Korea said any inspection of its ships by South Korea would be met with a military response. Adding to the tension now gripping the Korean peninsula, North Korea also said the armistice that ended the Korean war 56 years ago — an agreement that had maintained relative peace in the region — had come to an end.
If the United States had made some genuine efforts, it could have stopped North Korea’s nuclear programme long ago. The Bill Clinton administration signed a quid-pro-quo deal with North Korea way back in 1994. Under this agreement, North Korea would close down its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for fuel oil, two light water power reactors and the normalization of ties. Washington kept none of its pledges. When North Korea insisted that the US honour its word, Washington, especially the George W. Bush administration, said it would not give into blackmail.
Today, North Korea is talking to the US from a position of strength, underscoring a trend that shows that the power of the United States is waning.