Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne
BANGKOK (IDN) – Even before the ink dried up on a statement issued in the Laotian capital Vientiane by the East Asia Summit (EAS) on nuclear proliferation, North Korea announced the successful testing of a nuclear bomb that has focused attention in the region on increasing militarization.
Pyongyang’s latest weapons testing came less than a day after the EAS leaders adopted a statement urging it to give up its nuclear and missile programs. It was the first time that the 18-member regional body, which also includes the United States, China, Russia and Japan, adopted a single-issue statement other than the chairman’s statement.
The statement said that EAC “fully supports” the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2270 of March 2, 2016, “which unequivocally condemned the January nuclear test and February long-range ballistic missile launch” and that they are “registering deep concern over the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK – North Korea) subsequent and repeated ballistic missile launches in violation and flagrant disregard of the Council’s relevant resolutions”.
After a three-year lull, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test on January 6, 2016 and on February 7 it launched a long-range rocket that Pyongyang said had put a satellite into orbit.
On August 24, it successfully launched a ballistic missile from a submarine and on September 5 it fired three ballistic missiles that flew about 1,000km, at least one of which entered Japan’s air defence zone.
A shallow magnitude 5.3 earthquake detected near North Korea’s nuclear test site on September 9, pointed to a fifth atomic test, which Pyongyang has acknowledged.
“The North’s nuclear test, defying the EAS statement, proves the Kim Jong-un regime’s lunatic imprudence,” South Korean President Park Geun-Hye told the Korean media after returning early from Vientiane to chair an emergency security meeting with government officials in Seoul.
“Stronger sanctions and diplomatic isolation are what the North would only achieve through nuclear tests and they will lead to the regime’s self-destruction,” she warned.
President Park said that the South Korean government would cooperate with the UNSC and relevant countries on adopting additional tougher sanctions, while seeking all means to press the country into giving up its nuclear ambitions.
According to reports, many of the South Korean newspapers have described the North Korean leader Jong-Un as a “nuclear maniac” and asked their government to persuade Washington to re-deploy tactical nuclear weapons that were withdrawn from the country in the 1990s. One newspaper even suggested that China should be asked to cut off oil supplies to its neighbor, which could create economic chaos and possible starvation in North Korea.
Yet, others have cautioned about such extreme measures and questioned Seoul and Washington’s response to a perceived North Korean military threat by militarizing the region.
Hankyoreh, a leftist South Korean daily, has taken issue with their government’s handling of the nuclear threat from the North with such a cold-war mentality. The daily pointed out that the repeated tests reflect a failure in the existing approach to the mounting crisis.
“There won’t be any solution in expressing anger to the North and keeping putting pressure on it. We must go beyond Cold War-style confrontation,” Hankyoreh daily is reported to have warned its leaders. “We must stop pinning our hopes on the unrealistic theory that the North is coming close to implosion. Instead, a new, comprehensive strategy is needed.”
While much of Asia would not care less about North Korea’s nuclear grandstanding, even though the latest blast is claimed to have advanced its ability to launch a nuclear war, by miniaturizing and mounting a warhead on a missile, the four powers that usually respond to such tests demonstrated a well rehearsed symphony. South Korea accused its Northern leader of “maniacal recklessness”, while China “firmly opposed” the test, Japan “protested adamantly” and the U.S. warned of “serious consequences”.
With Pyongyang possibly making big strides towards becoming a nuclear power, President Jong-Un warned South Korea and the U.S. “to refrain from hurting the dignity and security of the DPRK”.
The timing of missile and nuclear tests has always coincided with a major international event where a response can be garnered from the leaders of the four powers thus drawing attention to his regime. This also provides space in the international media for North Korea to point out the provocations from Seoul and Washington.
Between August 22 and September 2 the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercises took place off the North Korean coast where up to 25,000 U.S. servicemen took part along with its South Korean counterparts and militaries of other allied nations such as Australia and Japan.
These exercises included pre-emptive strikes against perceived North Korean nuclear threats. Pyongyang has complained to the UN Secretary General in a letter that these exercises were to rehearse a “pre-emptive nuclear war” on the North.
In response, the North fired a SLBM at a high angle, using solid fuel, which flew over 500 km, landing in Japan’s air defense identification zone. Fired at a normal angle it could have gone up to 1000 km.
“Military exercises are necessary to enhance the deterrent, at the absence of threat reduction through a peace process. Yet, deterrent is not sufficient to bring about a peaceful resolution of the Korean issue. Every year, the annual exercises in spring and summer end up raising tensions,” noted Tong Kim, a fellow of the Institute of Korean-American Studies writing in the Korea Times.
Pyongyang’s SLBM firing has also raised concern about the planned deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system that the U.S. is planning to deploy in South Korea by the end of 2017. China and Russia are opposed to it and the plan also has its critics within South Korea.
“China has started taking concrete steps to curb South Korean interests in reaction to Seoul’s decision. Local residents in the South strongly oppose the basing of a missile battery in their own area. Many opposition politicians demand a parliamentary review of the deployment,” points out Kim in the article titled ‘North pulls off new ball game’.
In an editorial in Korea Times, the newspaper said that if China does not want THAAD to be deployed on Korean soil, “it should actively do its part to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions”. The Korean English language daily also criticized the Obama administration for not having been “forthcoming in dealing with North Korea and it has failed to change Pyongyang’s behavior”.
“The nuclear test carried out by the DPRK on September 9 should not come as a big surprise given the planned deployment of the US’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in the ROK (South Korea).
“In other words, the almost confirmed deployment of THAAD, an anti-missile defense system, has prompted Pyongyang to continue its ill-designed foreign policy,” argues Wang Junsheng, a researcher in Asia-Pacific strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences writing in China Daily, pointing out that North Korea’s testing usually follows U.S. and South Korean military moves.
“China’s strategic choices in the face of a rising nuclear threat in the neighborhood are limited because of the geopolitical complexity and the denuclearization process may take five to 10 years to complete,” he says.
“Washington and Seoul, in particular, should sincerely rethink their decision to install THAAD on the peninsula and review their other strategic mistakes that have prompted Pyongyang to make the wrong steps,” Wang adds.
He warns that “a vicious cycle is in the making (and) the peninsula policies adopted by the U.S. and the ROK are not conducive to lasting peace, as they have exhausted the very few opportunities to replace the 1953 armistice with a peace treaty’. [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 September 2016]