For the Chinese people, Feb. 7 should have been a festive occasion of joy and peace, as it marked the celebration of the Chinese lunar new year. But an unsavory twist happened on that day—China’s neighboring country, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), launched a “satellite” using ballistic missile technologies, prompting shock and indignation across the international community.
A nuclear-minded DPRK has become a prominent destabilizing factor in Northeast Asia. Only a couple of weeks ago, the DPRK conducted a nuclear test at the Punggye-ri site, located in the northeastern part of the country, and announced a successful “small hydrogen bomb” test thereafter. That was the DPRK’s fourth nuclear detonation, a step further in its flagrant violation of the related resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council.
As of now there is no credible verification of the alleged “hydrogen bomb” test, which would require tests of the water, air and soil in the vicinity of the testing venue. In the meanwhile, it is a widely held view among nuclear experts that DRPK is not yet in possession of advanced H-bomb technologies.
The latest nuclear test underscores the DPRK’s unwavering determination to become a nuclear power. Since Kim Jong-un took office, the right to develop nuclear technologies was incorporated into the Constitution, and the country has adopted a two-pronged strategy: to develop nuclear weapons alongside efforts to improve wellbeing of the people. On both fronts, Kim has demonstrated consolidated leadership in DPRK’s domestic affairs.
The four nuclear tests were conducted in the face of speculation believing that the DPRK was not serious about becoming a nuclear country; rather it only wanted to use the perception to leverage major powers to accommodate its security concerns, and would ultimately abandon nuclear programs in favor of normalization in its relations with the US. But facts are facts. The DPRK is intent on becoming a nuclear power, in order to establish its strategic deterrent against the US, and obtain lasting security for its regime. Based on the course of events so far, the go-nuke strategic intention of the DPRK is now beyond doubt.
As for the two-pronged strategy of the DPRK, it shall be reckoned that nuclear program and economic development in DPRK are not two separate issues that can be dealt with each on its own. It is time to dispense with the approach that aims to persuade the DPRK to calibrate its nuclear policy as a return for assistance to spur its economy.
Where are things heading now? We can look at it from the strategic and technical perspectives.
At the strategic level, outside parties will have to monitor whether the DPRK is able to translate its nuclear hardware and capabilities into leverage in its engagement and negotiations with the international community. Given the presumption that such engagements and negotiations are to materialize, it begs the question of who are the parties involved and where the DPRK intends to lead such engagements.
A likely scenario is that instead of only having China as the interlocutor, the DPRK would prefer having a direct conversation with the US, as two nuclear powers. But for the immediate future the US is unlikely to take the cue. Such a shift in approach would have wider implications on several scores, such as the foreign policy strategy, international prestige, and the stability of overseas alliance and domestic political dynamics of the US.
So this leads us to the next perspective, being the technical dimension. It should be noted that now that the DPRK has claimed successful testing of the H-bomb, it will by no means put its nuclear program on vacation, so to speak. On the contrary, it may push forward its missile development program to further its nuclear endeavors.
The DPRK is keen to miniaturize its heavy and bulky nuclear weaponry, so that it can be fitted onto agile detonators and missiles.
According to DPRK logic, only when it develops land-based or even sea-based medium-range missile capabilities, will the US take the DPRK seriously as an interlocutor in the Korean Peninsula talks. At that point, any talks would be regarded as having repercussions on the homeland security of the US per se. This is a coveted situation that cannot happen soon enough for the DPRK.
In essence, the nuclear pursuit and the missile programs are two sides of the same coin, and should never have been seen as two distinct issues. From now onwards, the “DPRK nuclear issue” should be referred to as “the DPRK nuclear missile issue”.
With a new government coming into office in 2017, the US will take renewed stock of the situation in the DPRK. China should start doing that right now. It merits mentioning that protecting its own homeland security should and must be the fundamental gauge for China’s policy towards the “DPRK nuclear missile issue”. There allows no other alternative.
(The series of opinions from this year’s Munich Security Conference are published in collaboration with the Pangoal Institution. The Pangoal Institution is a public policy research organization that is joined by renowned scholars and practitioners in China and elsewhere.)