A test too far?
What North Korea’s latest nuclear bomb test says about the country’s commitment to its current political course is as important as the test’s military significance. The world knew about Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities, but what it has only been able to guess at is whether new leader Kim Jong Un is willing to embrace a path of political and economic reform. Yesterday’s test, in open defiance not just of the UN Security Council, but of ally China, suggests strongly that he is not.
Kim has presided over two long-range rocket launches and now a nuclear bomb test in a year. When he took power after his father’s death in December 2011, there were hopes that he would bring reforms and end Kim Jong-il’s “military first” policies. It was clearly not to be.
The test came just weeks after the security council’s latest condemnation of North Korea over a ballistic missile launch, and has already prompted UN agreement in principle to further sanctions. The problem for the UN is that the state is already one of the world’s most heavily sanctioned and the only sanctions likely to bite are a cut-off of oil and other aid from a previously reluctant China. Pyongyang may, however, have pushed its ally too far this time.
Beijing yesterday responded to the test with a call for calm . “We strongly urge North Korea to abide by its non-nuclear commitment and not to take any further actions that would worsen the situation,” a statement said. But only days ago, warning North Korea not to go ahead, a Chinese paper known to reflect government thinking warned that the North must “pay a heavy price” if it proceeded with the test.
Chinese leadership on the issue would be most welcome. Fearful of the social impact of North Korean collapse in a flood of refugees across its border, or of a reformed North Korea falling under South Korean/US influence, Beijing has soft-pedalled on its criticism of Pyongyang. But North Korea’s status quo also has hugely destabilising potential and the time may well have come for a change of view.