This article was originally published by Fair Observer.
By Sébastien Smith
The news cycle around North Korea’s actions has become all too predictable. Its rocket launches and bomb tests tend to lead to a round of condemnation but little action from the usual voices. As of last week, the cycle repeated itself once more.
On January 6, the Hermit Kingdom announced it had detonated a hydrogen bomb, the fourth test since 2006. Although experts are skeptical that it was in fact a hydrogen bomb, a chorus of criticism from the United States, Japan, South Korea, and China sounded out. The key players in the region each have reason for choosing words over action.
U.S. President Barack Obama cannot divert from his policy of “strategic patience” without a real act of provocation. If the Kim dynasty was to be removed by force, it would not go down without devastating retaliation on South Korea. Seoul, the South Korean capital, is just 31 miles from the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas. While Obama is in charge, the U.S. will continue to play the waiting game.
South Korea, for its part, has resumed propaganda in the shape of anti-Kim broadcasts and K-pop through loudspeakers that can be heard 12 miles into North Korea. Yet while South Korea is committed in principle to reunification, many within the country fear the outcome of such a victory, other than the potential damage expressed above. Even if the Kim dynasty were to collapse from within, a huge refugee crisis and a bill for reunification that could cost over $500 billion would result.
China, the most crucial player, has stressed its commitment to a de-nuclearized Korean Peninsula. Most of North Korea’s food and money comes from China, and its ability to trade nuclear weaponry and secrets over the border could not be possible without a green light from the Chinese. While China is believed to have the most power over the rogue state, Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons demonstrates how little influence Beijing really has.
Yet this is not to say that there will no implications for the region. While the tests are damaging for stability and peace in East Asia, they are also bringing enemies together in response.
South Korea and Japan will “forge a united and strong international response to North Korea’s latest reckless behavior.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters: “We agreed that the provocative act by North Korea is unacceptable … We will deal with this situation in a firm manner through the cooperation with the United Nations Security Council.”
This is a remarkable statement given that South Korea and Japan have been reluctant allies since the end of World War II. It marked a further warming of relations between the East Asian nations, coming just over a week since the signing of a deal over the “comfort women” issue that had previously caused a huge strain in relations between the two countries.
Although it might not mean much for Sino-Japanese relations, the nuclear crisis at least draws attention away from tensions over disputed islands in the South China Sea, which China calls the Diaoyu and Japan the Senaku. While Tokyo fears a rising Beijing, a nuclear-armed North Korea poses a more immediate threat. As a consequence of the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, Japan is the oldest enemy of the nationalist Kim dynasty.
There have even been calls for the U.S. to cooperate closer with China over the North Korea issue. While it remains to be seen how China will respond, US Secretary of State John Kerry called for China to “end business as usual” with the rogue state.
Further afield, while Iran and North Korea are still partners, the nuclear deal struck between the P5+1 and Tehran in 2015 no doubt left North Korea feeling further isolated. Iranian officials were present during North Korea’s three previous nuclear tests—in 2006, 2009 and 2013, but not 2016. Furthermore, while Pyongyang’s desire for nuclear weapons is for survival, it also holds tests to market its missiles to the Middle East, as it has done for years. Now that Iran has given up its nuclear ambitions, North Korea has lost a loyal customer.
Indeed, perhaps it is this isolation from its partners in Iran and China that has led to North Korea continuing its quest to become a nuclear power as a means for survival as a state.
It would be near impossible for America to repeat the success of the Iran nuclear framework. Neither North Korea nor the U.S. can be easily brought to the negotiating table. While Iran had sometimes been diplomatic in the past—for example, offering to help the U.S. fight terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11—North Korea’s diplomacy has never been as sophisticated.
Pyongyang can no longer rely on resentment between the key players in the region. The tests, whether real or not, show a North Korea running out of friends and options.
Sébastien Smith is a freelance writer. He volunteers with the Chinese Educational Development Project at the Chinese Centre, which provides assistance to Chinese nationals residing in the United Kingdom in accessing existing educational, training and employment opportunities.
[Photo courtesy of Flickr]