Tuesday’s nuclear test by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may have been widely anticipated but that has not made the tremors from its showmanship any less alarming. The test poses a difficult strategic dilemma for both the United States — Enemy No.1 for North Korea — and China, Pyongyang’s strongest ally. Within the region, the fact that the “miniaturised and lighter nuclear device” just tested can easily be fitted on to a missile has South Korea and Japan extremely nervous. If the nuclear test was the DPRK’s way of forcing a dialogue with the U.S. on its terms, the Obama Administration’s main worry would be about setting a precedent for other countries. Retaliation through sanctions, though, seems to have run its course without any effect on North Korea’s will or ability to pursue its nuclear weapons programme. The test has also put China in a quandary. Always protective of the North Korean regime, it has faced increasing world pressure to wean Pyongyang from the nuclear path, but has been unable to do so. After all its efforts to put a lid on the damaging A.Q. Khan proliferation scandal, Pakistan too finds itself in the spotlight again with experts wondering if the latest North Korean device used enriched uranium rather than plutonium.
What the North Korean nomenklatura, especially its military elite, hopes to achieve from the latest test is not clear but one conclusion is inescapable: the regime sees nuclear weapons as the key to its political survival and has firmly and irrevocably turned its back on the chimera of a denuclearised peninsula. This means that a key assumption of the Six Party Talks process needs re-evaluation. Dialogue and diplomacy are still essential but the goal must now focus, realistically, on managing Pyongyang’s nuclear status and ensuring that the Kim Jong-un regime abides by global non-proliferation norms rather than on seeking ways for it to give up its weapons. Of course, the immediate fallout of the latest test is that both Japan and South Korea will now be looking for the protection of an enhanced American ‘nuclear umbrella’ including missile defence. Call it a more active ‘pivot to Asia’, this would be, as an Obama Administration official told the New York Times after the Unha-3 test, “indistinguishable from the kind of things that China views as a containment strategy”. The little nuclear genies in North Korea and Pakistan that China helped conjure up over the years will both end up as major strategic liabilities for Beijing. There is little the Chinese can do now to prevent an even more robust American military presence in the East Asian region.