Author’s Note: On February 12, 2013, news surfaced of man-made seismic activity measuring at 4.9 on the Richter scale in North Korea, likely the result of the third nuclear test Pyongyang promised to carry out. The contents of this article examine the various dimensions of the situation, and the consequences it could hold for the region.
|Location of the Mount Baekdu and the
Punggye-ri test site
Nile Bowie, Contributor
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have ignited once again, marking the most-unstable period of inter-Korean relations since Kim Jong-un began his tenure in December 2011. Following the successful launch of an indigenous satellite into orbit using a long-range missile in December 2012, the UN Security Council recently tightened sanctions on the DPRK that impose asset freezes and travel bans on individuals involved in state companies and North Korea’s space agency.
Although talk of Pyongyang conducting a highly controversial nuclear test has been in the cards for months, the DPRK has recently threatened to respond to tightened UN sanctions using “stronger measures” than a nuclear test. While bellicose rhetoric is to be expected from Pyongyang, recent statements against the United States and South Korea are unusually high on the Richter scale of belligerence. “We are not disguising the fact that the various satellites and long-range rockets that we will fire and the high-level nuclear test we will carry out are aimed at the United States,” stated North Korea’s National Defense Commission.
Pyongyang has also warned of “physical countermeasures” against South Korea if they participate in the UN sanctions against the North, stating, “as long as the South Korean puppet traitors’ regime continues with its anti-DPRK [North Korea] hostile policy, we will never sit down with them.” Reports claim that North Korea has allegedly been placed under martial law and its people told to “prepare for war” with the South. South Korean sources have reported that Kim Jong-un has issued a secret order to “complete preparations for a nuclear weapons test and carry it out soon.” Seoul-based military sources have also claimed that Pyongyang plans to conduct two simultaneous nuclear tests at once, or in quick succession, based on satellite data monitoring the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site.
To further complicate matters, General Jung Seung-jo, Chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned that the South could launch pre-emptive strikes against the North if it tried to use nuclear weapons, stating, “if [the North] shows a clear intent to use a nuclear weapon, it is better to get rid of it and go to war, rather than being attacked.” Analysts have predicted that the upcoming nuclear weapons test could fall on February 16, the birthday of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, or February 25th, the inauguration day of South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye. North Korea’s plans to test nuclear weapons go against the conciliatory tone struck by Kim Jong-un toward relations with the South in his New Year’s Address and his intentions to bolster the isolated state’s moribund economy.
Pyongyang is often credited with being a wildcard, but a closer examination of its domestic affairs in recent years shows that moves towards nuclearization are inevitably linked to extracting as many aid concessions as possible (especially at a time when political changes are taking place in South Korea), in addition to buying time for the regime in Pyongyang to incrementally improve its weapons technology. Pyongyang is keen to avoid being overly reliant on Beijing, and so North Korea actually has a strong imperative to secure as much aid as possible from the US and South Korea to keep itself afloat. A third nuclear test does not serve the DPRK’s interests and will only further strain its economic lifeline with China, even possibly inviting preemptive strikes from South Korean forces, leading to open war and a truly unpredictable situation that all regional players should be keen to avoid.
From the perspective of the Kim regime, which molds the opinions that North Korean civilians uphold, half of the Korean Peninsula is occupied by the United States. State newspapers such as the Rodong Sinmun routinely refer to the South Korean government as a puppet of the United States, recently highlighting Pyongyang’s displeasure with increasingly provocative joint US-ROK military drills, “ultra-modern war means are being amassed in south Korea and in the areas around the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. nuclear submarine and Aegis cruiser entered south Korea to hold combined marine exercises and to show off ‘military muscle’… warmongers are inciting war fever while touring units in the forefront areas.”
North Korea routinely complains of discrimination by world powers, compelling it to resort to nuclear deterrence; the fact that South Korea faced no international obstruction over its recent satellite launch only reinforces Pyongyang’s rationale. By acknowledging the “ultra-modern” military capabilities of the joint US-ROK forces, it can be gathered that the North realizes its own arsenal is much less sophisticated, as many military analysts confirm.
The military muscle of the US-ROK forces certainly poses an existential threat to Pyongyang, and as a result, the Kim dynasty sees the proliferation of nuclear weapons as the only surefire way to guarantee its own security. However, the North Koreans must realize that they can only get away with nuclear adventurism for so long, and it appears that the DPRK may soon be at risk of aggravating the hand that feeds it – literally.
China is not looking for any additional agitation as it prepares for its once-in-a-decade leadership transition. Analysts are pondering how Xi Jingping’s administration will treat North Korea. China’s seven member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) is the ultimate decision-making and policy-shaping body, and two members of China’s incoming PCS, Zhang Dejiang and Sun Zhengcai, have spent years in close proximity to North Korea, engaging in cross-border interactions with North Korean counterparts aiming to promote economic reform in Pyongyang. Despite nearly open war between the two Koreas in 2010 after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of a South Korean military vessel, China’s relationship with North Korea during the incumbent Hu Jintao administration was marked by several victories – noticeable economic cooperation with Beijing the stable succession of Kim Jong-un, and the general lack of external interference in the DPRK’s affairs.
Much to the surprise of many analysts, China backed the recent UN sanctions on Pyongyang, indicating some disapproval with the Kim dynasty’s hostility. Even so, it is unlikely that Beijing and Washington will begin playing from the same sheet music. China signaled its frustration with the North in an opinion piece in the ultra-nationalistic newspaper, the Global Times, “If North Korea engages in further nuclear tests, China will not hesitate to reduce its assistance to North Korea.” The editorial went on to say that if the US, Japan and South Korea “promote extreme U.N. sanctions on North Korea, China will resolutely stop them and force them to amend these draft resolutions.” China’s position on this issue should be commended for its balanced approach. For Beijing, stability is the name of the game; China does not want any military confrontations or mass refugee spillovers into its borders.
Even as Beijing becomes more upfront with its discontent, China has a valuable economic stake in North Korea’s development; it continually invests in joint ventures with Pyongyang and has led initiatives to develop the nation’s vast untapped mineral resources (which include deposits of coal, iron ore, gold ore, zinc ore, copper ore, and others) valued at a staggering $6.1 trillion.
The centerpiece of Beijing’s foreign policy strategy towards the North under Xi Jingping will be encouraging the regime to behave more sensibly and focus on meeting the needs of its people. Perhaps policy makers in Beijing will have an easier time convincing Pyongyang to drop the nuclear rhetoric in exchange for a meaningful security pact by which Pyongyang is guaranteed military support from China if things ever get ugly. Given the non-interference stance championed by Beijing, it would be doubtful that Beijing would extend itself in this way.
Plans for a third nuclear test will also put South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye in an extremely uncomfortable position, making it easy for her to enrage those on both South Korea’s left and right depending on how hard or soft a line she toes with Pyongyang. Park has spoke of easing relations with the DPRK, but like her predecessor, she maintains that the North’s denuclearization is a prerequisite for any negotiations – translation – there will be no negotiations and the ROK’s foreign policy trajectory is likely not to differ from that of hardline-conservative President Lee Myung-bak.
Pyongyang has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to comply with the ROK’s demands, and vice-versa. Inter-Korean relations appear to be following a repetitive script, with Washington’s solution to every issue being to tighten sanctions on the North.
The case has never been stronger for the withdrawal of the 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, a move that would satisfy civilians in both Koreas and yield higher chances of provoking a positive response from Pyongyang. Analyst Geoffrey Fattig argues in favor of a new approach being taken by the US by highlighting how Washington’s main source of leverage against the North is the military option, citing the friction caused by the mere presence of US troops, “the Obama administration needs to realize that it is holding a weak hand and fundamentally change its strategy… it is time for the Obama administration to start withdrawing the American military from Korean soil. Not only would such a move save billions of dollars annually at a time when the cost of maintaining America’s global garrison is coming under increasing scrutiny, but it would shift the impetus for negotiating solutions to the long-running dispute squarely onto the shoulders of the key players in the region.”
Pyongyang is playing a dangerous game and its continued belligerence can only be tolerated for so long. At this stage, Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric of bringing about a “radical turn in the building of an economic giant” can only be taken as seriously as Pyongyang’s hilarious claims of “conquering space” by launching its satellite. By failing to be a coherent actor in the economic, security and diplomatic realms, the DPRK is doing more long-term harm to its existence than it realizes. North Korea suffered immense human losses during the Korean War throughout the relentless US bombing campaign that flattened the country; it has legitimate grievances in wanting to safeguard its national security, but its lunatic defiance, odious personality cult, and unwillingness to follow Beijing’s advice by making serious economic reforms only further ostracizes Pyongyang in the eyes of the international community, to the point where its right of self-defense is being infringed by UN resolutions.
Additionally, geologists have warned that further nuclear tests may trigger an eruption of Mt. Baekdu, a dormant volcano, which is located near the Punggye-ri nuclear site. Mt. Baekdu plays an important role in ethno-nationalist North Korean propaganda, being the fictional birthplace of the late Kim Jong-il and an enclave of purity from which the Korean race was born out of. For North Korea’s seasoned propaganda writers, an erupting Mt. Baekdu would be the perfect backdrop for the long-touted “holy war” often evoked to hasten the day when racially-pure North Koreans liberate their southern brethren from the occupying US vampires. In the reality the rest of us live in, the scheduled nuclear test may not only provoke the eruption of Mt. Baeku, but also the very real possibility of a deadly military conflict between the two Koreas – a conflict that must be avoided no matter how provocative, belligerent or infantile either side behaves.
Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org