North Korea has finished preparations for their third nuclear test at the Punggye-ri test site and is awaiting the political decision to commence detonation.
Setting off a third nuclear device is a widely expected move for the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea but it’s not one that will do them any favors.
Having already faced condemnation from the West in going ahead with their rocket test in April and rumored to have taken a massive lashing from China during high level meetings in Beijing last week, there seems to be little that North Korea can gain by proceeding with the test.
Losing foreign aide from non-Chinese powers is problematic but probably survivable. However, the DPRK’s recent rocket launch went ahead without properly warning Beijing and China is equally vexed by Pyongyang’s plans for their nuclear device. There have already been insinuations of China ceasing repatriation of North Korean defectors (this won’t actually happen, China doesn’t want to give a green light to a sudden humanitarian crisis on its soil) but a nuclear test may force China to act more concretely on their threats toward the DPRK.
China’s arrangement with North Korea rests on keeping the country afloat as long as it pays China a modicum of respect. This respect involves proper warning of North Korea’s missile and nuclear test whims, economic zone and trade privileges and covertly bowing to China when Beijing disagrees on certain issues.
In Kim Jong-un’s first few months as ruler of North Korea, he’s sought to give the North Korean military every bell and whistle to keep them in his pocket but he’s utterly failed to pay Beijing the proper reverence it has become accustomed to.
The DPRK would come to a complete halt without Chinese assistance. China still supplies much of what makes North Korea tick, Pyongyangites are becoming more and more infatuated with Chinese goods and trade with China is finally seeing some small export success. The testing of a nuclear device against China’s wishes would seriously damage North Korea’s forward momentum in these areas.
During Kim Jong-il’s lifetime, his main contribution toward North Korea was to weaken the Korean Workers’ Party’s control and its ability to overthrow his rule by putting the military above all state and party organizations. He was smart and savvy enough to keep them under his thumb.
Unfortunately, Kim Jong-un finds himself the heir to a Songun (“military first”) state that believes foreign relations are best achieved with missiles, artillery and nuclear weapons, without the ability to properly keep his military in check.
Kim Jong-un’s grandfather proved himself as a leader though a nationalistic war (and Soviet support). Kim Jong-un may feel the need to continue feeding his military to prove legitimacy of his own. But fueling his domestic military at the cost of international relations is isolating his regime at a time when it is most in need of foreign assistance.
The young Kim may be walking a fine line between proving his merit as a leader via military strength and avoiding actual war but by giving into the DPRK military’s every whim, he may be slowly sinking his regime.
If the nuclear test occurs, Kim Jong-un will be squarely in the pocket of the North Korean military and not vice versa.
This story first appeared at Asia Security Watch, May 2, 2012.