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The North Korean Nuclear Test: Quest for Deterrence

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  • January 22, 2016

    The January 6, 2016 ‘thermonuclear’ test by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is the fourth in the series of nuclear tests beginning in 2006 in that reclusive country’s consistent quest to attain credible deterrence against the United States of America.

    In his long New Year message, the young supreme leader Kim Jong Un (KJU) had warned that “if aggressors dare to provoke us, even to a slight degree, we will never tolerate it, and respond resolutely with a merciless sacred war of justice, a great war for national reunification.” Keeping the world in no doubt about the identity of his country’s perceived enemy, KJU declared: “The United States has persisted in ignoring our just demand for replacing the Armistice Agreement with a separate pact to remove the danger of war, ease tension and create a powerful environment in the Korean peninsula. Instead, it has clung to its anachronistic policy hostile towards the DPRK, escalating the tension and egging its vassal forces on to stage a ‘human rights’ racket against the country.”

    Three days after the test, a commentary published in the official North Korean news agency, KCNA, noted that, “History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasured sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression.” The commentary concluded that both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi had made the mistake of yielding to Western pressure led by the United States which were bent on regime change. It also forcefully restated DPRK’s oft-repeated position that asking North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons was as pointless as “wishing to see the sky fall”.

    Simultaneously, in pursuit of its goal to have a full range of delivery systems, on January 9, 2016, North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a submarine-launched missile. In May 2015 also Pyongyang had announced that it had successfully tested a Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM). However, South Korean experts had treated this claim with considerable scepticism.

    Whether the most recent North Korean test was that of a Hydrogen Bomb will be known after a while, but the objective was miniaturisation of the system so that the nuclear weapon can be mounted on a missile. North Korea has made it known that it wants recognition by the world community as a nuclear weapon power and no amount of external pressure would force it to pause in that quest.

    Global Reaction

    The UN Security Council condemned the nuclear test, declared that it is a ‘clear violation’ of its previous resolutions, and pledged to pursue new sanctions against North Korea. USA, South Korea and Japan have “agreed to work together to forge a united and strong international response to North Korea’s reckless behaviour.”

    Cheong Wa Dae, the South Korean President’s ‘Blue House’, exhorted the international community that it “must make sure that North Korea pays the corresponding price” for the nuclear test. South Korea has also limited entry to the Kaesong Industrial Region in North Korea, which houses 123 South Korean Companies employing approximately 53,000 North Korean workers and about 800 South Koreans.

    In an angry reaction, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that the test was “a serious threat to (Japan’s) security and absolutely cannot be tolerated.” He assured the Diet that Japan would deal with the situation firmly in co-operation with the UN Security Council. Abe hinted at some unilateral measures “unique to our nation.” These measures could include strengthening of the anti-missile defence systems protecting Japan from a North Korean attack.

    In line with statements issued after the previous tests, India’s official spokesman said on the day of the test that “(it is) a matter of deep concern that DPRK has again acted in violation of its international commitments…. Our concern about proliferation links between North East Asia and our neighbourhood are well known.”

    Addressing the proliferation related concerns, a DPRK official statement on 15 January assured that North Korea will not provide anyone with its nuclear weapons, transfer related technology or use its bombs ‘recklessly’. The statement added that the country will arm itself with the ability to attack and retaliate with nuclear bombs and the US should “get used to North Korea as a nuclear armed state.”

    China’s Reaction

    Reacting to the nuclear test, Secretary of State John Kerry had urged China to end its “business as usual” approach towards North Korea. But China washed its hands off the problem, with its spokesperson Hua Chunying observing that “China is not the cause and crux of the Korean nuclear issue, nor is it the key to resolving the problem.” Nevertheless, the fact remains that only China is in a position to apply some credible pressure on North Korea since 88 per cent of North Korea’s foreign trade is with China. According to the South Koreans, China has been applying the existing UN sanctions against North Korea faithfully and the export of about 900 dual-use items has been prohibited to that country.

    In the midst of heightened rhetoric, on January 11, 2016, China called for “all relevant parties” to exercise restraint, referring to the flight of a nuclear capable US B-52 Bomber over South Korea and South Korea’s resumption of anti-Pyongyang loudspeaker broadcasts.

    China is comfortable with strategic ambiguity about the nuclear status of North Korea. But the insistence of an open declaration by the North of its Nuclear Weapon Power status would disrupt its strategic calculations in the region as the response from Japan could upset the regional power equation.

    On January 13, in her New Year address to the nation, South Korean President Park Geun Hye sought to pressure China to join the efforts for UN Security Council action imposing harsher sanctions against North Korea. She said, “Unless its strong will is translated into actual necessary steps, we can not prevent (North Korea’s) fifth and sixth nuclear tests, and can not secure genuine peace and stability on the peninsula. I am sure China is well aware of this.” Seoul expects China to do more to denuclearise North Korea particularly in view of the rapidly warming ROK-China relations.

    North Korea’s Approach towards South Korea

    In the midst of heightened tensions, there are signs that North Korea is working with the aim of driving a wedge between the United States and South Korea, for which it is pursuing two independent policies – one of nuclearisation and acceptance as a nuclear weapons power, and the second of not upsetting the apple cart with South Korea and continue with the current policy of no peace - no war.

    In his New Year address before the latest test, KJU referred to the inter-Korean high level emergency contact in August 2015 and said, “In the future, too, we will make strenuous efforts to develop inter-Korean talks and improve bilateral relations.” He advised “….if (South Korea) is sincere about improving inter-Korean relations and reunifying the country peacefully, the South Korean authorities must not seek pointless confrontation of systems…..”

    It may be recalled that in early August 2015 there was a landmine explosion on the Southern side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) which injured a ROK soldier. South Korea accused the North of planting fresh landmines in violation of the 1953 Armistice and, in retaliation, resumed anti-North cross-border propaganda through high volume loudspeakers. These loudspeaker broadcasts had been under suspension for the previous eleven years. North Korea reacted strongly giving the South a 48 hour ultimatum to stop the propaganda. But before the deadline came on 22 August, the North proposed a high level emergency meeting at Panmunjom in the DMZ. After marathon talks spread over three days, a six-point joint communiqué was issued which inter-alia included:

    1. North Korea’s ‘regret’ over the injuries to a South Korean soldier from the landmine.
    2. The North lifted its ‘quasi-state’ of war.
    3. Agreement on reunion of families on the occasion of ‘Chuseok’ – harvest festival – on 27 September. And,
    4. Suspension of South Korean loudspeaker broadcasts.

    A significant outcome of this dialogue was that about 250 aged South Koreans travelled to the North for a 3-day family reunion at Mount Kumgang resort in the North. This emotional get together happened after a gap of five years. Since the agreement about family reunions reached at the first-ever Summit between the leaders of the two countries in 2000, about 19,000 Koreans have met their family members separated during the 1950-53 Korean War.

    South Korea had also stopped its loudspeaker broadcasts against the North, which were being belted out from 11 locations along the DMZ. The high decibel broadcasts include K-Pop, News and criticism of the North and can be heard up to more than 10 kilometres inside North Korea. After the January 6 nuclear test, the South Koreans have resumed these broadcasts, which would infuriate the North.


    Analysing the events of the past one year, it would be fair to conclude that Kim Jong Un has firm control over all the levers of power in North Korea, including the military. The reclusive country would continue on the course set by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, pursuing a policy of ‘Military First’, the ‘Juche’ concept of self-reliance and seeking effective nuclear strike capability against the United States. The peninsula would continue to be divided as neither side is keen on unification despite their public protestations in favour of reuniting the long-divided country. The paramount objective of the DPRK leadership continues to be the survival of the regime and its politico-economic system, and it is unlikely to allow tensions with South Korea or the United States to come to a point that would lead to hostilities. However, a vicious war of words would go on! The world, at large, is also likely to gradually get reconciled to a de facto nuclear DPRK.

    Skand Tayal is a former Ambassador of India to the Republic of South Korea.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.