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North Korea’s nuclear gamble

Updated On: Oct 06, 2006

There is nothing new about Kim Jong-Il threatening a nuclear test.

In fact, some of its neighbours have gotten so used to it that the Russians urged the rest in the region to treat the test declaration with caution as it has been empty threats in the past.

However, while there is very little new in Kim’s swaggering and saber-rattling, Kim should have been aware that the region’s geopolitical situation has changed greatly. That is the problem with being locked up in a Stalinist hermit kingdom – the inability to read the situation clearly.

What has changed? First, North Korean scare tactics no longer work with Japan’s population increasingly impatient with Kim’s regime. Kim should be aware thatJapan has the region’s best-trained and most sophisticated self-defense force with one of the world’s highest defence budget at US$44.31 billion in 2005 alone compared to North Korea’s estimated annual budget of US$5 billion. Japan also has the world’s third most powerful naval defence forces.

Japan is currently ruled by the hawkish Abe administration which has placed North Korea as a centerpiece for Japan’s revision of the Peace Constitution. Abe has also openly professed very recently the possibility of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea to discipline Japan’s enemy. Japan is more than adequately armed to retaliate against North Korea to teach the Stalinist state a lesson. The only factors holding Japan back are the pacifist segments of its population, Washington andBeijing external pressures.

Kim needs to value his alliance with Beijing more. Already strained from the last missile test in defiance of Premier Wen Jiabao’s express warning not to go ahead with it, Beijing has frozen North Korean assets in the Bank of China and has cut down on oil supplies to North Korea. Beijing has suffered an extreme loss of face and used up political credits to shield North Korea from greater punitive sanctions beyond a declaratory rebuke. Signs of China’s increasing impatience with Kim was shown in a sharp rebuke. Chinese Foreign Minister, Li Zhaoxing was noted to have warned that “North Korea would face unspecified serious consequences if it carried out its first nuclear test”.   

Kim’s nuclear card has also spooked its generally sympathetic South. South Korea’s President activated an emergency national security meeting and has set up monitoring posts along its border with the North to spy on North Korean preparations for the so-called nuclear test. Ironically, Kim’s wild act has the potential to push the three Northeast Asian giants closer towards reconciliation in the post-Koizumi era. Already the North Korean issue will be a top agenda for the bilaterals between Beijing-Tokyo and Seoul-Tokyo this coming week. And following on the heels of Abe’s visit to Beijing is the South Korean President’s own visit to China. Of late, Beijing and Seoul seems to have moved towards a common position in dealing with North Korea

Other lesser powers in the region have joined in the fray. Canberra’s John Howard has also delivered a tough message to Pyongyang and was one of the leaders in pushing for regional and global economic sanctions against North KoreaSingapore has also expressed its opposition to the tests. The Russians are more restrained compared to its East Asian neighbours but nevertheless worry about the environmental consequences of an underground test so near its borders. They are not alone. Japanese experts worry that the underground test conducted inside a tunnel burrowed into a mountain at the Northwest end of North Korea might go wrong and blow off the metal lid bottling up the explosion to create a nuclear fallout in the region.

Further afield, London was one of the first to react to the tests. The world can only wait to see if their threats, persuasions, advice, warnings and other diplomatic tools work in restraining North Korea. In the West, Washington is most pointed in its warnings, directly delivering its message of “deep concern” via the New York UN channel. It remains to be seen how Washington will cope with this crisis since it has arisen in parallel with Iran’s own nuclear program while the bulk of its troops are still tied down in the Iraq’s quagmire.  

Sources:

Nations confront N. Korea over nuke test (AP, 4 October 2006)

Leaders divided on NK nuke threat (CNN, 4 October 2006)

World calls for N. Korea restraint (CNN, 4 October 2006)

North Koreans Say They Plan a Nuclear Test (NY Times, 4 October 2006)

Seoul steps up nuclear test monitoring over North Korea (Channelnewsasia, 4 October 2006)

Double blow to nuclear detente  (BBC News, 4 October2006)

AsiaNorth Korea's risky new experiment with capitalism (Asahi, 4 October 2006)

North Korea says it plans nuclear test (Japan Times, 4 October 2006)

Worried neighbours urge North Korea to return to nuclear talks (Channelnewsasia, 4 October 2006)

World alarmed at North Korean threat of nuclear test (Channelnewsasia, 4 October 2006)

World alarm as North Korea threatens nuclear test (Channelnewsasia, 3 Oct 2006)

China sharply rebukes North Korea (ST, 6 October 2006)