The security environment in East Asia looks now more fragile as US military satellite observations at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear site indicate that North Korea is most likely to conduct the fourth nuclear test. The satellite images showed that one of the tunnel entrances was covered with tarpaulin to hide equipment in preparation for a test. The satellites had made similar observations when North Korea conducted the third nuclear test on 13 February 2013.
Pyongyang publicly announced on 30 March that it “would not rule out a new form of nuclear test for bolstering up its nuclear deterrence”. This statement referred to UN condemnation of its mid-March Rodong missile test launches. It remains undeterred despite threats of more severe sanctions from the international community and continued preparation throughout April at the Punggye-ri test site. Pyongyang alleges that President Obama is seeking to “bring down the DPRK by force”. A statement posted on by state media outlet the Korea Central News Agency said there is nothing to prevent Pyongyang from carrying out a fourth nuclear test. Pyongyang considers conducting another nuclear test is its “exercise of the inviolable right to self-defence”.
By warning to carry out a “new type” of nuclear test, Pyongyang has kept analysts engaged in speculating if it would be the regime’s first plutonium-based device. For Pyongyang with examples of Iraq and Libya before it, nuclear weapons program remains as a “treasured sword” to fend off the hostility of the US.
Though Pyongyang sent a condolence message through the Red Cross Society to Seoul for the Sewol ferry disaster, it criticised the inefficiency of the government. It responded to President Park Geun-hye’s meeting with Obama in April with harsh invective, including highly personal and misogynistic attacks.
It has even ignored request from China, its main ally, to back down. A fourth nuclear test could backfire on North Korea. The UN will surely work to seal loopholes in previous sanctions if Pyongyang proceeds with a fourth test, which may threaten the survival of the regime. While speaking to the International Peace Institute in New York early in May 2014, South Korea’s foreign minister Yun Byung-se said only the “necessary political decision” is awaited before Pyongyang goes ahead with the test. South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin also does not rule out the possibility that North Korea could be employing “deceptive” tactics at the site to increase tensions.
Though China is unhappy with its little brother, there is little indication that China would support sanctions in the event of the recalcitrant brother conducting another nuclear test for the fear of destabilising the North. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it has blocked punitive measures against the North in the past and can exercise veto power again, notwithstanding growing tension between the two allies.
Indeed, the East Asian region is in flux with plenty of tectonic shifts with huge uncertainty looming large in the horizon. The region is witnessing a rising China with ever expanding ambition to increase it further, a resurgent Japan with a nationalistic prime minister, an assertive Russia as demonstrated by its recent annexation of Crimea and an anachronistic North Korea in pursuit of nuclear weapon program. This presents a huge challenge to the political leadership.
Pyongyang is unlikely to respond to Seoul’s proposal to help develop its economy if it abandons nuclear weapons because the North always prioritises both the development of its economy and its nuclear deterrent and therefore unwilling to abandon its nukes for the sake of growth.
Though South Korea has proposed to the North its agenda for peaceful unification of the peninsula, not only Pyongyang has dismissed the offer but the proposal does not have the endorsement of the South Korean people because of the unification cost. A recent poll commissioned by the Seoul National University showed that four out of 10 South Koreans are not willing to cover the costs of reunification. A government think tank has estimated that the initial cost of reunification may be as high as 142 billion pound, primarily because of the lack of infrastructure in the North.
Following increased activity at the North’s nuclear test site, President Park telephoned Chinese President Xi Jinping to help persuade North Korea not to carry out the nuclear test, arguing that additional nuclear test by the North would fundamentally change the security landscape in Northeast Asia as it would spark an arms race and a “nuclear domino” effect in the region. Though Xi told Park that China and South Korea are on the same page on the nuclear issue, Beijing prefers dialogue between the related countries, implying thereby it would not approve additional sanctions should another test takes place.
Pyongyang, however, is unlikely to heed China’s warnings against conducting a fourth nuclear test. Chinese experts say that China’s role in taming the North has been “overestimated”. Though Beijing has grown increasingly frustrated with the North’s wayward behaviour, it is unlikely to take tougher actions, including suspending or restricting supplies of food and energy because it could lead to a regime collapse in North Korea. Pyongyang is likely to respond with even more provocative way if Beijing takes a “tough stance”. Jin Qiangyi, director of the Asian Studies Center at Yanbian University is of the opinion that “as long as Pyongyang is determined to develop nuclear weapons, it will not be obedient to another country including China”. According to him, Pyongyang is cognizant of Beijing’s vulnerability which allows Kim Jong-un to continue pursuing his nuclear goals. Pyongyang is aware that China wants to maintain the stability of its threshold at the north-eastern borders.
It seems likely now that North Korea will choose the timing of a test by taking its own interests into account. The possible reason why it pulled back when Obama was in South Korea could be the latter was immersed in the tragic incident with the ferry Sewol and because of fear that another test would have aroused nationalistic sentiments in South Korea against the North. South Korea is still in deep mourning and shock after the 6,825-ton ferry Sewol sank off its southwest coast on 16 April, with 476 people on board and over 300 dead.
Despite China has its own constraints and consideration, there exists a palpable nervousness in Beijing about North Korea’s behaviour. This emerged from the clear admission by China’s nuclear envoy Wu Dawei that North Korea’s threats of a nuclear test as “serious”. Wu made this remarks in his talks with South Korean counterpart Hwang Joon-kook in Beijing on 11-12 April 2014, during which both discussed the need to find ways to curb the North’s nuclear brinkmanship.
At a time when a territorial dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands could spawn into a major escalation between the second and third biggest economic powers in the world with devastating consequences not only to the security of the region but with debilitating effects on the world economy, a separate, slow-motion crisis building on the Korean peninsula could further inflame their regional rivalry. The satellite imagery indicates that North Korea is about to pull the trigger on its fourth nuclear test and this underlines the fact that Pyongyang is proceeding determinedly step-by-step towards the day when it can target any city in the Asia-Pacific. The possibility of hitting a city in the US with large population with nuclear attack unnerves not only the US but the world. Indeed, a fourth nuclear test can always be a potential “game-changer”.
The immediate consequence of a fourth nuclear test by North Korea will add pressure on the US to bolster its missile defences in the region and could bring South Korea and Japan closer in contemplating their own nuclear deterrents, separate from the US. Obviously, China would dread such a nightmarish scenario with a nuclear arms race on its doorstep, and one that adds muscles to its rival Japan as the Asian nations continue to wrangle over the set of islets in the East China Sea. Beijing would also not rejoice the prospect of a new bonhomie between Japan and South Korea that the new situation would present. That would be China’s dilemma.
What if North Korea meltdown?
China seems to have a contingency plan for a possible regime failure in Pyongyang. The Chinese government has, however, denied the authenticity of a report of a contingency plan that was leaked to the Japanese media in recent days. If the plans are real, the existence would suggest Beijing does not have much confidence in the durability of the North Korean regime. According to the leaked report, China’s PLA would increase surveillance along the nation’s border with the North so that in the event of a regime collapse, the PLA forces can apprehend senior North Korean officials who might try to leave the country as well as check the influx of refugees crossing into China. China may officially deny the existence of such a report but given the vulnerability of the situation, it would be naive if Beijing does not have really any such plans to meet any contingency.
The US and Japan are understood to have prepared their own contingency plans so that they can jointly respond to a range of incidents that might unfold in the event of regime failure jeopardising the security of nuclear, chemical and other sensitive materials. Academic inputs suggest that the US should discuss with China how the new situation be handled in order to avoid any strategic miscalculations. Adam Garfinkle writes that if Pyongyang becomes too much of a nuisance to its patrons in Beijing, China may join the US, Russia, and Japan “to plot a modulated, controlled euthanasia for the North Korean regime”. It is possible to speculate that Beijing may have deliberately leaked the contingency plan to send a message to Pyongyang that it could help engineer North Korea’s collapse and then take control with a view to prevent possible strike by other power to take control of the country.
As per Beijing’s contingency plan, the PLA would detain North Korean leaders in special camps so that they are prevented from directing military operations or even take part in actions that could be detrimental to China’s national interests. Since a regime failure inevitably would result in millions of refugees attempting to flee and the only route to safety for the vast majority would be crossing over the border into China, the Chinese authorities will be well prepared to question the new arrivals, determine their identities and turn away any who are considered dangerous or undesirable. China has an 879-mile border with North Korea and would be keen to secure it if civil unrest breaks out in the secretive state leading to the exodus of refugees. The leak could be a well crafted Chinese strategy to warn and deter Pyongyang from conducting another nuclear test. It could be for this reason that China stopped supplying oil to North Korea during the Jan-Mar 2014 period to put economic pressure. But this could be a temporary measure.
In its own contingency planning, the US for the first time is treating North Korea as a nuclear-armed opponent. According to its “OpPlan 5029” strategy for a potential new Korean War, in a “what-if” scenario the US imagined the possibility for Pyongyang to build a simple atomic weapon and attempt to deliver it by ship or truck. This is because the US intelligence officials do not think Pyongyang has developed the ability to miniaturise nuclear arms enough to fit on a ballistic missile. But if Pyongyang’s March 30 statement of “new form” is analysed carefully, North Korea could have made considerable headway in that respect and will prove if it test-detonates a fourth atomic device, which seems likely any moment and at the timing of its own choosing. The US seems is stuck as its long time policy of “strategic patience” proved to be increasingly unsuccessful.
All the countries in the region as well as the US have stake in the stability of the northeast Asian region. There is a greater urgency now than ever before that they are in dialogue with each other to coordinate likely future developments instead of having their own independent strategy. Historical examples of regime collapse such as in Libya and Iraq suggest that the more totalitarian the regime, the harder and faster they fall. For this reason, contingency plans are always useful. North Korea seems to be teetering on the edge of implosion and Beijing would “by no means allow war or chaos to occur on its doorstep”. There are plenty of uncertainties and no single conclusion seems possible at this moment.