Policy Alert: Rising Powers Respond to North Korean Hydrogen Bomb Test
On January 6, North Korea announced it conducted its forth nuclear test, claiming the successful explosion of a hydrogen bomb. As experts work to verify the claim, the international community unanimously condemned Pyongyang with the UN Security Council planning to impose further sanctions on the Kim Jung-un regime for taking an action South Korea called an “unpardonable provocation.” In a display of strength and support for allies in the region, the United States flew a nuclear-capable B-52 bomber over Seoul, which prompted North Korea to vow further tests. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from South Korea, China, Japan, India, Russia, and Brazil on the latest North Korean nuclear test.
As expected, South Korean President Park Geun-hye denounced the test as a “serious threat” to national security and warned “our military is at a state of full readiness, and if North Korea wages provocation, there will be firm punishment.” Along with resuming broadcasts of propaganda messages across the north-south border, South Korea urged the international community to work together on sanctions to inflict “bone-numbing pain” on its northern neighbor, specifically calling on China to prove Beijing is serious about improving ties with Seoul.
Newspapers in South Korea focused on how the country and the international community should response to this latest development by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
- “It is regretful that South Korea has no effective ways to punish the North,” lamented theJongAng Ilbo. “Resuming the propaganda broadcasts at the border won’t even make Kim blink. There is no option for Seoul other than sitting at the unappealing table of the UN Security Council to adopt sanctions.” At the minimum, the paper insisted South Korea “mustreinforce its intelligence on North Korea.”
- The Hankyoreh critiqued the resumption of the broadcasts as a “wrong response” that “works against” the international community’s efforts.
- The Korea Herald disagreed, calling the propaganda broadcasts “one of the few options the South has that can inflict real pain on the unruly regime.” The editorial continued that “the broadcasts target the North’s Achilles’ heel – the young leader’s lack of legitimacy and ruthless leadership style.” The Chosun Ilbo also supported the resumption of the broadcasts.
- “Dialogue is the only feasible alternative… to have Pyongyang to yield its nuclear weapons program,” argued the JongAng Ilbo, saying “U.S.-China cooperation is key” to solving the problem. “The United States should abandon its rigid North Korean policy, which is now considered ‘strategic ignorance’ rather than ‘strategic patience’… No international action to punish Pyongyang is possible without the participation of Beijing.” The Korea Times echoed this view (here and here).
- The Dong-A Ilbo believed China was “unlikely to impose strong sanctions on North Korea” so therefore “Seoul should consider using the South Korea-U.S.-Japan regional security cooperation system to put pressure on China… us[ing] as leverage the proposed deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in South Korea and Seoul’s possible start of nuclear armament.” The Korea Herald shared a similar view.
- The Hankyoreh called for “a fine-tuned international response” to “lead the North to realize the problems and dangers of possessing nuclear weapons so that it comes to the right decision on its own.”
Several in South Korean even discussed the possibility of acquiring a nuclear arsenal to counter the North Korea’s threat, a proposal made by some policymakers with the Saenuri Party.
- The Hankyoreh called the proposal “inappropriate” as not only “impractical for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons, but the very proposal itself makes things worse on the Korean Peninsula and stokes public fears about national security.”
- The Dong-A Ilbo criticized that the idea is “not feasible given that it goes against the consensus of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and that it might lead to diplomatic and economic isolation of South Korea. Seoul is neither in a position to choose nuclear over KOR-US alliance.“
Despite being one of North Korea’s closest allies, it appears North Korea did not notify China in advance of the nuclear test. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying decried the test and stated “China is steadfast in its position that the Korean Peninsula should be denuclearized and nuclear proliferation should be prevented to maintain peace and stability in Northeast Asia.” The government ramped up radiation monitoring activities near the border with North Korea, but it did not expect the test would have an environmental impact on the mainland.
Many analysts and media outlets voiced outrage at North Korea.
- China Daily said there “should be no tolerance and compromise” on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The paper rejected Pyongyang’s claims the test would improve its security position and urged a restart of the six-party talks with regional powers and the United States aimed at finding a solution to the nuclear impasse.
- Zhang Lian’gui, professor of international strategy studies at the Central Party School, said the DPRK was using Washington as “an excuse” for its dangerous actions to try and “exploit the differences between China and the U.S.”
- The Global Times worried problems in northeastern China near the border with North Korea would “hurt social stability” and pose a “big challenge to the Chinese government.”
Others turned the focus on the United States and its allies in the region, characterizing them as aggressors who have mishandled the crisis.
- The Global Times pushed back on calls in the West – specifically from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – for China to be the ones to solve the DPRK nuclear issue. Arguing the United States should “bear more responsibility to alleviate tensions in the Peninsula,” the paper saw the problem stemming from Pyongyang’s security anxieties caused by Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo.
- Ren Weidong, associate research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, expressed a similar opinion and noted the joint military exercises by these three countries as legitimate threats to North Korea.
- Xinhua’s Wang Haiqing criticized the B-52 flyover as dangerous “pressure tactics” that will “hardly succeed in subduing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambition” and instead will “harden” the country’s resolve.
- Dr. Fan Jishe, senior fellow of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, concluded President Barack Obama’s strategy of “Strategic Patience” on the DPRK nuclear challenge has been a “great failure,” one that will haunt his foreign policy legacy.
Several commentators highlighted the risks for China should North Korea continue its nuclear weapons and nuclear testing programs.
- Wang Junsheng, associate professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, observed “Pyongyang is misjudging its own strength and hopes the international community might eventually accept its ‘rightful’ possession of nuclear weaponry.” China feels a “rather palpable threat” from the nuclear test “because it leads to a new vicious cycle on the Korean Peninsula.”
- Zheng Jiyong, professor on Korean Peninsula studies at Fudan University, questioned the authenticity of the hydrogen test but counselled the nuclear program would “push [North Korea] into a security dilemma, instead of making it more secure.”
- The United States may use the latest nuclear test to “strengthen its military presence” in South Korea, according to Gao Cheng, researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Gao Cheng also worried the test may give Japan another reason to build its own nuclear program, undermining Chinese security interests. Indeed, some of the South Korean commentators mentioned above suggest these lines of arguments.
Many observers presented their views on how China could help achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula or at least prevent further escalation.
- The Global Times affirmed “nuclear weapons are not the solution to [North Korea’s] domestic woes” and urged engagement with the outside world if the hermit kingdom was “determined to develop its economy.”
- Wang Hui, senior writer with China Daily, pushed for a resumption of the six-party talks based on the “flexibility and continuous diplomatic efforts” of the international community when crafting the recent Iran nuclear deal. However, he worried the so-called U.S. “pivot to Asia” may have poisoned the well of cooperation in the Asia-Pacific and made this arrangement more difficult than it was on Iran.
- Wang Junsheng advised Chinese leaders to be a responsible major player in the region by stabilizing “its relationship with Pyongyang to alleviate its worries about the imbalanced geopolitical structure.”
- Peking University professor Wang Dong blamed the U.S.-India civilian nuclear energy cooperation deal for complicating Chinese efforts to bring North Korea back to the non-proliferation regime.
- Gao Cheng counseled China to block U.S. and Japanese efforts to “exploit” the tense situation and urged Russia to “exert more pressure on the DPRK.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe branded the test a “grave security threat” that demanded robust international action. Japan’s proximity to North Korea puts it in range of the country’s missile barrage and has led Tokyo to pursue further unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang as well as coordinate a response to the nuclear test with the United States and South Korea.
Japanese newspapers offered different views on the rationales behind the nuclear test.
- The test was a “complete surprise,” said the Yomiuri Shimbun. “Making any rational predictions regarding the Kim regime has become ever more difficult.”
- The Mainichi Shimbun explained Kim Jong-un “wanted to demonstrate the success of the hydrogen bomb test to the North Korean public to show him as a leader who is capable ofopening a new era ahead of a convention of the ruling Korea Workers’ Party due to be held in May for the first time in 36 years.”
- The Nikkei Shimbun opined the nuclear test was designed to consolidate the North Korean regime, which is suffering from international isolation and economic struggles.
- The attempt to maintain the regime by further nuclearization is a “complete mistake” and “will only backfire and bring about the regime’s ruin,” claimed the Asahi Shimbun. TheMainichi Shimbun expressed a similar view, calling North Korea’s strategy a “misguided idea.”
- Tetsuro Kosaka, a senior staff writer for the Nikkei Shimbun, described the nuclear test as a “desperate attempt to bring the U.S. to the negotiating table.”
The newspapers were at odds with how the international community should respond to the test.
- Making an analogy to the failure of British appeasement toward Nazis Germany that led to WWII, the Sankei Shimbun argued the United States, Japan, South Korea, and other powers must firmly respond by strengthening sanctions against North Korea. The Yomiuri Shimbunalso called for “stern action” against North Korea.
- The Nikkei Shimbun argued China must play a key role in sanctioning North Korea, including the termination of its energy supply. As a nonpermanent member to the UN Security Council, Japan must also lead the diplomatic efforts, reinstalling its unilateral sanctioning measures that have been temporarily lifted for the ongoing negotiation on the abduction of Japanese citizens.
- The Asahi Shimbun emphasized the need for a “new strategy” for dealing with North Korea, pointing out the U.S. policy of refusing to start serious talks with the Kim regime “has failed to work.” Starting dialogue with Pyongyang under the framework of the six-party talks will be a possible step. Mainichi Shimbun echoed this view.
- The Japan Times disagreed, saying the international community must firmly respond “to let Pyongyang know its gamble [to resume dialogue by conducting a nuclear test] won’t be rewarded.”
India’s External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Vikas Swarup said the test was a “matter of deep concern” and a “violation of its international commitments.” He called on North Korea “to refrain from such actions which adversely impact on peace and stability in the region.”
Several commentators put the nuclear test in the context of India’s rivalry with Pakistan and whether Pyongyang posed a threat to South Asia.
- The Hindu said Kim Jong-un has tried to “tighten his grip of power” by upping “the ante in this game of provocations” with the latest test.
- Rajiv Nayan, senior research associate at The Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, worried “there is a great possibility” regional underground proliferation networks were “still alive, and China is still the kingpin of this network.” He also raised the likelihood Pakistan was using North Korea as a proxy to test a hydrogen weapon for Islamabad. Uday Bhaskar at the Society for Policy Studies also suspected Pyongyang had external help.
- While North Korea is thousands of miles away, analysts from the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) in Bangalore concluded the country’s growing nuclear capabilities could directly threaten India through collaborations between North Korea and Pakistan on missile and nuclear weapon programs. Vikas Swarup underscored this view by saying “our concerns about proliferation links between North East Asia and our neighborhood are well-known.” The Press Trust of India also reminded readers of Pakistan’s ties with North Korea.
- If it turns out North Korea successfully tested some form of a thermonuclear device, Happymon Jacob, associate professor of disarmament studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, believed it would have “serious implications for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the balance of power in the Korean Peninsula.”
Other media outlets and experts debated possible ways out of the nuclear impasse in the Koreas, whether through an Iran style deal or with greater pressure on North Korea from its ally China.
- While Kim may be angling for “an Iran-like deal where he could swap his country’s nuclear arsenal for international recognition and economic partnership,” The Hindu worried the test could nevertheless disrupt regional stability and “pose dangerous portents for the world.”
- Happymon Jacob argued the United States has “summarily failed to address the North Korean nuclear challenge” and needs to re-engage Pyongyang and Moscow to get the six party talks started up again.
- Although The Hindu doubted the extent of Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang as “Kim does not seem to be particularly interested in the ‘China-ally’ tag,” it insisted China has a “historical responsibility to lead the efforts to solve the crisis” just as Russia did with the Iran deal. NIAS analysts echoed this view and added China’s failings could “strengthen the U.S. position vis-à-vis the China-Korea-U.S. dynamic.”
Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations denounced the test as a “clear violation of international law” that necessitated the resumption of the six-party talks. Moscow and Beijing issued ajoint statement reflecting a similar view. Russia borders North Korea, and the head of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee said “any activity of the DPRK in this direction directly affects national security of our country.” President Vladimir Putin directed his government to closely study seismic and radioactivity monitoring stations along the border to verify the authenticity of the test and prevent dangerous environmental spillover effects.
Russian policymakers and experts expressed different opinions on the threat posed by the nuclear test.
- Alexei Pushkov, head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian Parliament, posited North Korea will not give up its nuclear ambition as leaders view the program as their only security guarantee after U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Libya.
- An official at the Russian Foreign Ministry remained optimistic. “The situation is complicated but it is not hopeless… We hear different belligerent statements, and it is important not to allow the situation to get out of control.”
- Georgy Toloraya, director of the Center for Russia’s Strategy in Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, offered a similarly optimistic but also cynical view. “I don’t expect a full-blown conflict because no one is interested in it and no one is ready for it… [The easing of the tension] is most likely to happen in two or three months, somewhere in late April, after the end of the U.S.-South Korean military drills – the traditional exercises that always cause tension – and after the UN passes its resolution and North Korea responds to it in a corresponding negative way.”
- Andrei Lankov, professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, said “the world does not have effective levers to pressure North Korea… The international community will only go as far as making tough statements, the world has other business on its mind other than North Korea.” He accepted “North Korea is a nuclear empire and will remain this way.”
The nuclear test was a major news story in Brazil, a country that voluntarily abandoned its nuclear weapons program in the 1990s. Brazil’s foreign ministry, Itamaraty, expressed “grave concern” about North Korea’s test and “vehemently condemned” the country’s actions. The earthquake following the nuclear test was picked by seismic monitoring stations even as far as Brazil.
Commentators in the Brazilian government and the media reacted negatively to the test and called on the DPRK to exercise restraint.
- Itamaraty also accused North Korea of violating its obligations under the United Nations and called for a return to the six-party talks.
- Estado de São Paulodescribed the test as “once again showing the fragility of international controls in the face of an authoritarian country” that “does not care about the wellbeing of its own population or regional stability.” It mentioned Brazil’s stance and outlined the possible lines of action before concluding that China is the key player who must support sanctions like it did in 2013.