Tensions are running high following North Korea’s defiant decision to carry out a second nuclear test. According to sources in South Korea and China, strong tremors measuring around 4.7 on the Richter scale indicate that a bomb as powerful as those that landed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was successfully detonated underground.
The test follows a diplomatic row surrounding North Korea’s failed satellite launch in April which, rather conveniently, would have helped the country to develop technology very similar to that used in the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles. A UN resolution denounced the attempted launch and Kim Jung Il reacted strongly by pulling North Korea out of the ‘six party’ diplomatic talks and announcing that he will resume his nuclear weapons program.
This step was fairly typical of Jong-Il who has taken to using North Korea’s military power as a bargaining chip with the US. In the past both the Clinton and Bush administrations have entered into deals with North Korea whereby resources such as oil and food have been offered in exchange for diplomatic cooperation and disarmament. These deals have been agreed but have all failed – North Korea has received aid and then broken the agreements, continuing to show a disregard for the rules of international behaviour.
President Obama has responded by saying that the US will take “stern” action to the launch which he described as “a blatant violation of international law.” There has also been a strong verbal response from the international community, perhaps most importantly from the Russians and the Chinese who have issued statements of strong condemnation. Obama’s Chief of staff, Raum Emmanuel, claims that the US administration will start being much tougher on North Korea. Nonetheless history has taught us that taking a hard line against the Jong-Il regime is notoriously difficult.
The weakness of the country’s centrally planned economy, combined with its geographical location, puts it in a unique position whereby it can exercise a great deal of diplomatic power. The Chinese and the Russians realise this more than anyone. Both countries have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo in the region and cannot afford the massive and uncontrolled influx of migrants which would result from the country’s collapse. North Korea also acts as a useful military buffer to the South in which around 29,000 US troops are stationed. The Russians and the Chinese would have to significantly increase their military presence on the North Korean border if the South were to take control which would stretch their armed forces even further.
Any course of action that the US takes now will be incredibly costly. The might of the North Korean military is such that war is an almost inconceivable option. The imposition of economic sanctions would severely damage an already crippled economy and would likely lead to a humanitarian crisis in the area. Obama may well not have the option of waiting for the frail 67 year old Kim Jong-Il to pass away, and even when he does there is no reason to think that this will bring change. If the death of ‘Eternal President’ Kim Il Sung is anything to go by then the prospect any significant regime change when Jong Il dies does not seem likely. Jong Il’s next successor has already been announced: his youngest son Jong Un.