North Korea

Bigger bomb

Print edition : October 14, 2016

A rally at Kim Il-Sung square celebrating the success of the recent nuclear test. This undated photograph was released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on September 13. Photo: REUTERS

A television screen at Gimhae International Airport in Busan, South Korea, on September 9, showing an image of Kim Jong-un, leader of North Korea, in a news broadcast on North Korea's nuclear test. Photo: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

North Korea conducts another nuclear test, which helps it gain the capability to produce “standardised and minimised” nuclear warheads, and the U.S. presses for more sanctions on the country.

IN THE SECOND WEEK OF SEPTEMBER, North Korea carried out its fifth nuclear test. The last two tests were in quick succession. The latest nuclear test, the most powerful one so far, coincided with the country’s 68th independence day celebrations. It was conducted in the underground testing facility of Punggye-ri in the north-east of the country. The magnitude of the blast has been estimated at between 10 and 20 kilotons, much higher than the test conducted in 2013, which was estimated to be between six and seven kilotons. Pyongyang stated that the latest test was that of a hydrogen bomb. It announced that it had conducted the test “to determine the power of our nuclear warhead”. The statement from the government claimed that the country had now gained the capability to produce “standardised and minimised” nuclear warheads.

As expected, the nuclear tests were roundly condemned by the international community, with the loudest criticism coming from the United States and its allies in the region. President Barack Obama described North Korea’s decision to go in for another nuclear test as “a grave threat to regional security and to international peace and stability”. He demanded “serious consequences” for North Korea’s actions, including the introduction of even “more sanctions”. North Korea is the most heavily sanctioned country in the world but this has not impacted on its determination to chart out its own unique way of preserving its sovereignty. “The pressure for more international sanctions is laughable,” the North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Hi said in a speech at Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) conference in Venezuela in the third week of September. He said North Korea would continue to strengthen its nuclear power.

Every year, huge joint military exercises involving the U.S. and South Korean troops are held on the Korean peninsula. This year’s military exercises involved the participation of 300,000 South Korean and 17,000 U.S. soldiers. They were backed by high-tech armoured vehicles, artillery and air and sea power. North Korea views the annual military exercises as a grave provocation, especially as the U.S. and South Korea have changed the defensive nature of the exercises into “an offensive one”. After the September nuclear test by North Korea, the U.S. Air Force flew two B-1 strategic bombers accompanied by four U.S. F-16s and four South Korean F-15s over the southern part of the Korean peninsula, adjacent to the border with North Korea. It was another threatening message to Pyongyang. The B-1s, which carry over 31 tonnes of payload, are used in bombing raids over Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

The Commander of the U.S. forces in South Korea, Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, described the latest nuclear test by North Korea as “a dangerous escalation” and an “unacceptable threat”. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, speaking to the media in the third week of September, said sanctions on North Korea were a failure. She suggested that the U.S. resort to tougher action. Her rival in the presidential race, Donald Trump, came in for widespread criticism when he implied that he would try the negotiating tack with North Korea.

The reaction from Japan and South Korea were equally belligerent. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while describing North Korea as a “grave threat to regional security and to international peace and stability”, wanted the international community to “take resolute action”. The South Korean military command threatened the North “with a pre-emptive strike” in alliance with the U.S.

The U.S.-South Korean military exercises this year had rehearsed a military plan, code-named OPLAN 5015m, which visualised a pre-emptive strike and “a decapitation raid” to neutralise North Korea’s leadership. A top South Korean military official told the Yonhap news agency that the country’s Defence Ministry had a plan for the total destruction of Pyongyang, “if the North shows any signs of using a nuclear weapon”. Many leading conservative South Korean politicians have been demanding for some time that South Korea acquire nuclear weapons of its own.

The U.S. Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, was quick to apportion blame to China for the latest nuclear test by North Korea. “China shares an important responsibility for this development and has an important responsibility to reverse it,” he said. This time, however, the criticism from China following the nuclear test was somewhat muted. When North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January, China joined the chorus of criticism aimed at the North Korean government and had, in tandem with the U.S., agreed to implement additional sanctions on North Korea. These draconian sanctions included a ban on the export of gold, titanium and rare earths, all important sources of hard currency for the cash-starved North. The United Nations sanctions also imposed a ban on the export of coal, iron ore and iron along with the import of oil, except for “livelihood purposes”.

China is North Korea’s largest trading partner accounting for more than 90 per cent of its overall trade. If more sanctions, as demanded by the U.S., are imposed, it could lead to the complete collapse of the North Korean economy and the implosion of the country. The last thing China wants is Korean reunification under U.S. tutelage. Such a development would also mean the presence of U.S. troops and weaponry along China’s borders. China has been upset with North Korea for destabilising the region with its nuclear and missile tests.

The U.S. had used the January 2016 nuclear tests and the medium- and long-range missile tests by North Korea as a pretext to further militarise the region and strengthen the military alliances with Japan and South Korea. Shinzo Abe has used North Korea’s actions to justify the country’s remilitarisation plan and the revision of its pacifist Constitution.

THAAD missiles

The Obama administration announced in the middle of the year that it planned to expeditiously deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) batteries in South Korea. China is of the view that the high-tech missile interceptor system being installed in the Korean peninsula is part of the U.S.’ military pivot to the East and that it constitutes a direct threat to the country’s security. The THAAD system detects incoming missiles and intercepts them at long ranges and high altitudes by using its own hit-to-kill missiles. Washington and Seoul are claiming that the THAAD missiles are being installed with the goal of protecting South Korea and the 25,000 U.S. troops there.

Obama told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the missiles were only aimed at thwarting the threat from North Korea. The Chinese side is far from convinced. Senior Chinese officials hold that the THAAD system will be able to detect missiles based on China’s coastline, thus undermining the country’s nuclear deterrent. In South Korea, there is growing public opposition to the deployment of missiles, with violent protests erupting near the sites where they are slated to be deployed.

After the latest nuclear test, Chinese Foreign Minister Hua Chunying called on North Korea to live up to its commitment to denuclearise and rejoin the six-party talks aimed at bringing a lasting peace to the Korean peninsula. The six-party talks involve the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan. At the same time, Hua urged all the parties involved in the Korean dispute “to speak and act cautiously with a larger picture in mind”.

Obama administration’s policies

The Obama administration’s policies have played a big role in scuttling the talks so far. The North Korean government had agreed in 2007 to end its nuclear programme but additional demands by the George W. Bush administration for more on-site verifications in 2008 scuttled the deal. Obama has been demanding the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal before any resumption of talks. An earlier deal between the U.S. and North Korea in 1994 was similarly undercut after the U.S. refused to implement its part of the deal, which included diplomatic recognition of the North and providing it with two nuclear power reactors.

Washington wants Pyongyang to unilaterally sacrifice the nuclear and missile prowess it has acquired over the years as a precondition for the resumption of the six-party talks. It has to be remembered that North Korea accelerated its nuclear and missile programme only after the U.S. earmarked the country for regime change in 2003 by including it in the so-called “axis of evil” along with Iraq and Iran. The North Korean leadership has not forgotten the way regime change was effected in Libya after Muammar Qaddafi voluntarily gave up his nuclear ambitions. A nuclear deterrent, the country’s leadership has calculated, is the best guarantee for the protection of state sovereignty against an overwhelmingly superior military force.

North Korea’s principal demand is diplomatic recognition from the U.S. and formal cessation of hostilities. The country is still technically at war with the U.S. North Korea wants to return to the negotiating table with a strong hand. A few weeks before the latest nuclear tests, it successfully tested a submarine-based ballistic missile which flew over 500 kilometres and landed near Japanese waters.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said the test showed that his country had entered the “front rank of the military powers fully equipped with nuclear attack capability”. The submarine missile launch came in the wake of a second round of U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises in August.