Asia Pacific

North Korea is Walking a Fine Line

North Korea

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January 11, 2016 19:20 EDT

By failing to notify China beforehand, the North Korean test of a hydrogen bomb heralds a new era of aggressiveness.

On January 6, North Korea announced that it had successfully conducted a test on its first hydrogen bomb. The world’s major powers were quick in condemning this action as irresponsible. Although China will not vote for stricter sanctions against North Korea, the test strains ties between both countries. Contrary to prior tests, this time Beijing had not received advance notification and was thus as surprised as other nations.

The existence of North Korea, whose official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is based on two factors. First, as a so-called rogue nation, the DPRK is not part of the wider international community. While it is a member of the United Nations, the country refuses to adhere to the political norms and rules that most nations proclaim. Second, as a geographical neighbor, and as one of the last countries that define themselves as communist, North Korea is almost a logical ally of China.

Since the Korean War in the 1950s, Beijing has been Pyongyang’s principal supporter. Without Chinese aid, the DPRK would not be able to survive. Here, North Korea faces a dilemma. It needs China, but to maintain its status of a rogue nation, it needs to be seen as a sovereign actor and not just a Chinese puppet.

The North Korean regime is thus walking a thin line. Its existence is based on appearing as threatening as possible to the international community—especially toward its self-proclaimed arch enemies South Korea, Japan and the US—while it needs to be careful so as not to invite any real military action. Pyongyang can only convincingly do so if its actions are seen as autonomous from Chinese influence. On the one hand, this involves actions that are explicitly not coordinated with China, while on the other hand, it means running into danger of alienating its Chinese ally.

Ever since the Cold War arms race between the US and the Soviet Union, to have power over a nuclear bomb has meant to be able to scare enemies into non-action. Consequently, since US President George W. Bush defined North Korea as a part of the “axis of evil” during his 2002 State of the Union address, the DPRK has intensified its efforts to possess nuclear weapons.

Although it is debated whether the recent test involved a nuclear or hydrogen bomb, and while it is unclear where North Korea obtained the technology and know-how from, it is safe to say that the regime has access to nuclear weapons. While it is easy to see this test as just another step in a never-ending cycle of escalation that is almost always followed by a step of de-escalation, the information that Pyongyang now has power over nuclear weaponry, and the decision to conduct the experiment without notifying China, heralds a new era of aggressiveness.

It is unlikely, though, that Beijing will stop supporting Pyongyang as its existence—and thus the status quo—keeps the US and its allies occupied. In other words, as long as North Korea is of use to China, it will get support.

Since North Korea’s withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, it has used nuclear threats as a means to bargain for food and other needed products. While the DPRK remains a blind spot even for US intelligence agencies, it is safe to say that its population is highly disadvantaged in living standards compared to its neighbor, South Korea. In reaction to the recent test, Seoul has restarted its acoustic propaganda machinery at the border to the north, which the DPRK countered by warning of an imminent war.

As it is hard to clearly define North Korea’s intentions behind the test, it is difficult to foresee the looming implications. As a fact, the US and South Korea will attempt to put even stricter sanctions on the rogue nation, while China will try to get North Korea in line with its own interests. It is unlikely, though, that Beijing will stop supporting Pyongyang as its existence—and thus the status quo—keeps the US and its allies occupied. In other words, as long as North Korea is of use to China, it will get support.

Backfiring on North Korea

However, it is yet unclear whether the North Korean regime has miscalculated the recent test’s effects. In a worst case scenario, it might backfire on Pyongyang if it leads to the US and its allies moving closer together in East Asia’s territorial disputes, as this would not be in the interests of China, whose policy is based on bilateral communications only. If North Korea harms the Chinese plan of expansion in the South China Sea and the Pacific, Beijing might reconsider its support.

Technically, the two Koreas are still at war, as the demarcation line at the 38th parallel is only based on an armistice—which the DPRK declared invalid in 2013—and not a formal peace treaty. The real threat that arises from this situation is not about nuclear weapons, but the unpredictability of North Korea’s actions as a whole, its neighbors’ reactions, and the implications that could follow.

Consequently, while the United Nations and the international community can condemn this test and take other steps of escalation verbally, the choice of further actions is limited. Although this means being largely passive, the best way to deal with the current situation is to stick to a pragmatic approach that implies officially assuring regional allies of any assistance, while waiting for North Korea to take a step of de-escalation itself.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: The Render Fish

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