With its claim of testing a hydrogen bomb, North Korea hopes for a ticket back to the negotiating table.
It isn’t unusual for the new year to be seen in with a bang, but when, on January 6, North Korea claimed it had successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb, reactions of an entirely unseasonal nature were elicited worldwide. Luckily, it swiftly became apparent that there was no need to run for the bomb shelters just yet, as experts assured the world that the test was made using a very small nuclear device of a decidedly traditional type, producing a decidedly conservative explosion.
However, once seismographs stopped shaking and the world’s powers finished reading their angered statements, a more clear-eyed appraisal of the situation would argue that the Hermit Kingdom’s bomb test was not a serious threat to international security. Rather, it was a ruse enacted by Pyongyang to extract the kind of financial concessions that would keep its economy from tanking.
Throughout the core months of 2014 and 2015, North Korea suffered from a severe drought as a result of the lowest rainfall levels in the country since 1961. The nation’s so-called “rice bowl,” which is important for feeding the population, was largely reduced to hard-baked clay throughout the course of last year and seriously hinders its potential to sustain crops over the next 12 months. This could explain why North Korea has chosen to provoke the international community.
North Korea tried this strategy before with great success in 2007, when it got the United States to unfreeze $25 million in and received roughly 1 million tons of oil. This might not sound like a lot, but experts point out that alleviating North Korea’s food crisis only requires $8-19 million. On the back of the successful conclusion of the Iran nuclear negotiations, it is clear that the political class fancies its chances of securing oil and food from participants in the six party talks in return for closing a nuclear program that has led to the development of the hydrogen bomb.
But negotiation, as an alternative to forcefully deal with North Korea, must be approached with a significant degree of caution. Time and again, first with the Clinton administration and then again during the Bush administration, Pyongyang proved itself highly adept at twisting the particular approach of the then-negotiating party to its own advantage. It seems clear from looking back over the past 30 years of diplomatic talks that North Korea has never had any intention of discarding a nuclear program that lies at the core of its Songun “military-first” policy.
After the demise of the denuclearized Gaddafi and Saddam regimes, who traded their nuclear programs for political guarantees, North Korea might very well use its arsenal as the only guarantors of its autonomy.
Fool me once…
However, this time around, the regime’s strategy might not bear fruit. Despite the fact that Pyongyang’s leadership is comfortable with enduring further sanctions, even at risk of impoverishing many of its citizens as a consequence, the US House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly to step up sanctions already in place instead of hinting at negotiations.
North Korea, however, has learned to live in a state of isolation ever since it was forced from underneath the Soviet Union’s wings in the 1980s. It has showed time and time again that it is more than willing to allow the lower echelons of its social hierarchy to take the brunt of sanctions so that the military classes may thrive. This not only shows the futility of implementing unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang, but also undermines them as an ethically credible course of action.
There is, however, one relationship that North Korea still values and still needs: the one it maintains with China. Although somewhat chilly since the nuclear tests of 2013, that relationship is still worth around $6 billion in trade to Pyongyang and also secures it a route to the all-important foreign currency that it cannot otherwise access. In addition, given North Korea’s tendency toward political petulance, China has always been careful not to make too many demands upon its fickle ally—keeping at least one avenue open, down which the regime may be willing to travel.
If restarting negotiations would play too much into North Korea’s hands, then surely it would be more productive to apply pressure to get China more involved in the issue. After all, the presence of such a volatile nuclear threat upon its doorstep is one that should surely cause concern—should and is, according to reports on China’s Internet traffic.
It would seem that even the Chinese public is in agreement with the rest of the international community: That it is time for Beijing to get involved and finally rein in that troublesome little man in Pyongyang.
Much like a medieval king, Kim Jong-un’s regime seems to function on a toxic combination of obedience and awe. While North Korea’s weapon test is morally objectionable, its nuclear program is not directed at any particular country. Its goal is to reinforce the regime’s narrative in the eyes of its population, and to goad the international community into treating Pyongyang with respect.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.