North Korea is predictable in one sense: When it feels that its national interests are threatened, it tends to strike out. This is what it did again after the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution on Jan. 22 condemning the North’s launch of a missile and extending sanctions. The U.N. also warned of “significant” further actions if North Korea conducts another nuclear test.
Pyongyang defended its launch, arguing that its sole purpose was to put a satellite into orbit. Unfortunately for North Korea, the rest of the world saw it as a test of long-range missile technology, which had been banned under U.N. resolutions.
Pyongyang’s first response was to threaten the United States. As the official news agency stated, “We are not disguising the fact that the various satellites and long-range rockets that we will fire and the high-level nuclear test we will carry out are aimed at the United States.” Washington wisely responded by avoiding a direct confrontation and instead called North Korea’s threats “needlessly provocative.” The White House added that “Further provocations would only increase Pyongyang’s isolation, and its continued focus on its nuclear and missile program is doing nothing to help the North Korean people.”
Pyongyang made very clear that it intends to hold a third nuclear test. (The previous two were in 2006 and 2009).
Other leaders also condemned the North’s outburst. Germany’s foreign minister described it as a provocation that will only further isolate North Korea, and a Russian member of parliament warned of an international backlash if North Korea went ahead with the nuclear test.
One surprising reaction came from North Korea’s only remaining “friend” in the region — China. Not only did China (which has veto power) back the U.N. resolution, it did not offer Pyongyang with Rather, it limited itself to asking powers in the region to “refrain from actions that might escalate the situation in the region.”
The Chinese are in a difficult spot. Pyongyang knows China does not want a united Korea, which would be dominated by the United States and the South. Consequently, China does what it must to keep the North Korean regime afloat. However, an editorial in China’s state-run Global Times warned, “If North Korea engages in further nuclear tests, China will not provide it assistance.” China is exasperated with Pyongyang and China’s leaders are warning them that there are limits to its support, especially in the military area.
North Korea has isolated itself from the rest of the world. It may have ties with Iran, but it is difficult to see any other friends. The Russians think the North Korean leadership is “crazy” to quote a person in the Foreign Ministry who has dealt with North Korea.
South Korea responded along the same lines as others. Its most senior official in charge of relations with the North called Pyongyang’s action a “cataclysm for the Korean people,” one that poses a fundamental threat to regional and world peace.
Pyongyang responded quickly, threatening “strong physical countermeasures” if South Korea participates in enforcing the U.N. sanctions. It also referred to the enhanced sanctions as “a declaration of war.”
So what makes North Korea tick? What causes its new leader, Kim Jong-un, to hurt his own nation? Some observers believe he is playing to the country’s senior military figures. After all, most experts argue that the army runs the place. Every male North Korean must serve for seven years making the country’s military one of the largest in the world.
So, will North Korea conduct its planned nuclear test? Most of the specialists I consulted believe it will. Satellite photos suggest that everything is ready. Assuming North Korea carries out the test, then what? How far will South Korea go in responding? What if the North carries out provocative acts such as the sinking of another South Korean ship?
The South has a new president, Ms. Park Geun-hye. She is considered more moderate than her predecessor, but I don’t see how she could do nothing if the North conducts its test. There would be considerable public pressure “to do something.” It is not a happy picture.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.