The U.S. Director of National Intelligence reported that North Korea performed a several-kiloton nuclear-explosive test earlier this week—Pyongyang’s third nuclear test since 2006. Several news agencies reported a six- to seven-kiloton blast yielded by the test, which would make this North Korea’s most powerful and sophisticated nuclear device yet. The negative reaction in Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, Washington, and at the United Nations in New York reveal the incredible isolation of the North Korean regime and the international unity against its nuclear weapons program.
The nuclear test is not completely unexpected. But it once again poses a serious threat to U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region and calls into question Pyongyang’s true motivation.
Some analysts have speculated that the timing of the test was meant to either coincide with the Chinese Lunar New Year or upstage President Barack Obama before Tuesday’s State of the Union address. More likely, the test appears to be a response to several leadership changes in the region and a warning sign from one new leader on the Korean Peninsula—North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un—to another—South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye.
The nuclear test poses challenges for North Korea’s neighbors. In Beijing, it is another pivotal moment for Chinese diplomats, who asked the North Koreans not to conduct the provocative test. Unfortunately, China’s newly appointed political leaders have limited leverage over Pyongyang and few attractive options to influence North Korea’s behavior. China provides considerable food and energy aid each year to North Korea, making Beijing a vital lifeline for the regime in Pyongyang. China could, as it has at least once in the past, cut off these supplies for a period of time. But for now, the Chinese leadership has been very reluctant to do this for fear of risking a major destabilization on the Korean Peninsula, potentially leading millions of refugees to stream across the border to China. There appear to be some divisions within the Chinese leadership over this issue, with more analysts openly questioning whether China’s support for the regime is worth the price of a more militarized Japan, for example. Nevertheless, continued begrudging support for North Korea has remained the prevailing view in Beijing. Whether the new leadership alters this course has yet to be seen.
North Korean leaders understand the tensions inside China and use them effectively to their advantage. They also understand that Chinese and U.S. interests differ—the United States cares most about North Korean denuclearization, while China balances its opposition to the nuclear program with keeping the current regime stable enough to avoid insecurity on its border. North Korean analysts are good at reading the tea leaves in Beijing and using the difference in priorities to drive a wedge between U.S. and Chinese leaders to prevent them from presenting a unified front on the nuclear program.
In Tokyo, recently elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is considering his own options to better defend Japan from an existential threat in North Korea. The National Diet of Japan, its parliament, is currently debating expanding Japanese military capabilities beyond self-defense—a significant change from its pacifist post-World War II foreign policy. Prime Minister Abe announced a $2.1 billion purchase of PAC-3 surface-to-air antiballistic missile systems and the modernization of four F-15 jets last month, which comes just a month after Japan purchased $421 million in upgrades to the U.S.-built Aegis missile defense system. None of these developments are welcome in Beijing, to say the least, but in the face of North Korean recklessness, Japan’s moves are understandable.
In Seoul, the nuclear test is a signal that there will be no honeymoon for South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye, who formally takes office on February 25. Some analysts saw the potential for greater reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula between Kim Jong-Un and President-elect Park, who might have been able to move past the decade-long animosity between the two countries. That possibility, however, now appears unlikely, if it ever existed at all. President-elect Park issued a statement following the attack saying that, “North Korea’s nuclear test is a grave threat to the Korean Peninsula and international peace, hampers inter-Korean trust-building, and undermines efforts for peace.”
In Washington, the actions in North Korea are just the latest chapter in an all-too-familiar story. North Korea continues to provoke the West on the nuclear question, raising the danger of whether the regime will export nuclear-weapon technology out of the country. Secretary of State John Kerry responded to the nuclear test by stating:
This is not only about the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and its continued flaunting of its obligations under three separate Security Council resolutions. This about proliferation, and it’s also about Iran because they’re linked. … What our response is with respect to this will have an impact on all other nonproliferation efforts.
The other concern is that Pyongyang will develop the capacity to miniaturize a warhead and deliver it to the United States via an intercontinental ballistic missile. At some point, the North Korean crisis could become a very serious direct threat to the United States, and that will change the U.S. response—once again in ways that China will not welcome.
At the same time, North Korea represents an immense humanitarian problem, which calls for international attention. The regime in North Korea relegates its people into a subservient environment through an 800-calorie-per-day diet, leading to malnourishment, starvation, and, most importantly for Pyongyang, a population unable to protest the government’s neglect.
At the United Nations, representatives of almost every major nation—including the United Kingdom and Russia—quickly condemned the nuclear test, demonstrating the international opposition to North Korea’s nuclear program. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice discussed the augmentation of the current sanctions regime, which will require the consent of China and Russia. But as Ambassador Rice stated, conducting the test “despite strong warnings from [the United States] and the international community is nothing more than an act of isolating itself.” North Korea remains alone on this issue, and their efforts to drive a wedge between China and the West may not successfully prevent a ratcheting up of international sanctions.
North Korea’s dangerous and reckless actions continue to show just how isolated this regime is—isolated in its region, isolated from the interests and suffering of its people, increasingly isolated from its neighbor China, and out of step with its global responsibilities.
Rudy deLeon is the Senior Vice President of National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Ken Sofer is a Research Assistant with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center.