Pyongyang shakes things up as neighbours' new regimes settle in


ANALYSIS:The third nuclear test by the North Koreans yet again ratchets up tensions in the region, jangling nerves in South Korea and Japan, and putting pressure on China to rein in its ally, which it seems increasingly unable to do.

“The test was conducted in a safe and perfect way on a high level, with the use of a smaller and light A-bomb, unlike the previous ones, yet with great explosive power,” North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said, confirming speculation that seismic activity near Kilju about midday had indeed been a nuclear test.

Such great explosive power is designed to show the North’s nuclear programme is a success, and that it is getting closer to its stated aim of producing a miniaturised warhead that will fit on a long-rang missile, like the Unha-3 rocket, which put a satellite into orbit in December.

The detonation takes place when South and North Korea, Japan and China all have new administrations getting their feet under the table. President Obama, leader of the North’s “sworn enemy”, the US, is shaping his new administration in his second term.

“Pyongyang may want to perform a fait accompli with this test and compel the Obama administration to deal with North Korea as a full-fledged nuclear weapons state,” wrote Korea analysts Victor Cha and Ellen Kim at the Centre for Strategic International Studies.

Simon Baptist, regional director for Asia at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would be seeking to place all three new regional leaders in a difficult position, “and emphasising that he is not going to be a weak negotiator”.

The South Koreans have unsurprisingly condemned the test, calling it a “clear violation of UN resolutions” and said it would seek more sanctions from the UN Security Council, which it chairs this month.

Japan is considering unilateral sanctions. The US is likely to ramp up its military presence in the region now, including more anti-missile defence equipment in South Korea.

Yesterday’s detonation caused an earthquake of 5.0 magnitude, while the previous tests in 2006 and 2009 were 3.9 and 4.4 each, so this seems to be a more powerful device.

There has been speculation about whether this test involved a plutonium device or a uranium device.

The previous two tests involved a plutonium weapon, but the North Koreans are said to have a uranium enrichment facility, and as North Korea has uranium deposits which it can dig up and use, this is certainly the preferred option for Pyongyang.

Outside the North Korean embassy in Beijing there is a display case of photographs, which includes shots of the Unha-3 launch. Even to a casual observer, it was obvious things were not going to end with the missile launch.

There are growing anxieties about how much material and information is exchanged between Iran and North Korea.

China’s reaction is vital, as it is North Korea’s only major ally and the only real conduit for the rest of the world to deal with Pyongyang.

The response from Beijing was fairly mild. The government expressed “firm opposition” to the test. The detonation came as China was shut down for the Lunar New Year holiday, but the Chinese had been told in advance.

Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi summoned North Korea’s ambassador to China Ji Jae-ryong for a dressing down.

China has described North Korea as being “as close as lips and teeth”. Four months into the new leadership of Xi Jinping, North Korea’s nuclear test is a challenge for Beijing, which has already agreed to tightened UN sanctions on the country, a move that brought criticism from Pyongyang.

“China always supports the denuclearisation on the [Korean] Peninsula in an aim to safeguard the peace and stability of the peninsula,” Mr Yang said.

“We strongly urge the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to honour its commitment to denuclearisation and refrain from any move that may further worsen the situation,” the statement ran, urging a resumption of long dormant six-party talks, chaired by China.

An editorial from the official Xinhua News Agency said Pyongyang had breached repeatedly UN resolutions, which was “unwise and regrettable”, but it appeared to blame the US for forcing North Korea to build nuclear capabilities. “In reality, the DPRK’s defiance was deeply rooted in its strong sense of insecurity after years of confrontation with South Korea, Japan and a militarily more superior United States,” it said.

On Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, the reaction was negative, while Hu Xijin, editor of the state-run Global Times, said: “North Korea is headed down the wrong path.”