The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is a country in East Asia, located in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula bordering South Korea and China. Its capital, Pyongyang, is the country's largest city by both land area and population. It is a single-party state led by the Korean Workers' Party (KWP), and governed by Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un since 2012. It has a population of 24,052,231 (UN-assisted DPRK census 2008) made up of Koreans and a smaller Chinese minority. Japan 'opened' Korea in 1876 and annexed it in 1910. The Republic of Korea (ROK) was founded with US support in the south in August 1948 and the Soviet-backed Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north in September that year.
North Korea may yet push China to finally act on nuclear threat
Shim Jae-hoon says Beijing’s reluctance to use its leverage is being tested
Repeating the past, North Korea's young ruler Kim Jong-un has threatened the US and South Korea with dire consequences for opposition to the nation's missile adventurism. In a break from the past, Kim issued thinly disguised criticism of North Korea's principal benefactors - China and Russia. The latest turn in North Korea's brinkmanship will test China's newly installed party general secretary Xi Jinping .
In strident responses to the UN Security Council's resolution this month stiffening sanctions over the December rocket launch, the North claims it is ending talks over denuclearisation efforts; it will also conduct a new underground nuclear test of a "high level" device, predicted to target the United States.
The threat against the US, the first since Kim's inauguration, followed signs of a thaw. Before the recent crisis, Kim had seemed to offer an olive branch to South Korea. Some analysts speculated that he might be ready for dialogue with President-elect Park Geun-hye.
His volte-face in threatening South Korea for supporting the US has thus raised speculation. Few can fathom the mood in Pyongyang and a regime operating in opacity: Is an omnipotent military group pressuring Kim? Is he panicking at the prospect of tighter UN sanctions?
With the North Korean military system deeply involved in weapons trade, especially nuclear and missile technology with Iran, it's possible such factors are at play. The North's statement indicates Kim is stung by China and Russia's support for the resolution, although China agreed to back the US draft only on condition that no new sanctions are imposed.
But such protest has its limits: state-of-the-art weaponry comes from Moscow, and the North is critically dependent on China which supplies half its food and energy.
Beijing has leverage over the Pyongyang regime. Why, then, bite the hand that feeds? Perhaps because Kim is acutely aware of the geopolitical value of North Korea as a buffer state next to US ally South Korea. Kim's latest show of defiance may also be his reaction to China's recent courting of South Korea amid growing tensions with Japan over the Diaoyu-Senkaku territorial disputes.
Asked at a foreign ministry briefing as to how Beijing would respond to a third nuclear test by the North, spokesman Hong Lei described the situation as "complicated and sensitive" and urged restraint.
In truth, neither the policy of restraint nor the six-party talks chaired by Beijing off and on over the past decade have produced a breakthrough. The North repeatedly accepts aid, then backs off from obligations.
Almost word for word, Hong contradicted the North's stated position on the nuclear issue. The gap between what he said and China's persistent refusal to use its leverage for taming the North's nuclear ambitions has raised questions over Beijing's assertion and global influence.
The Pyongyang statement is the only indication of Kim's reaction to China's UN vote. One can assume that the North would not make that challenge if it weren't ready to stand up to Beijing.
If the North proceeds with testing another device, possibly with enriched uranium, as analysts speculate, this would be another wake-up call for Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. Such a test would lead the US to seek stronger co-operation from China in confronting the North's threat.
More than the United States, China could find such a bomb to be a game changer, forcing it to reconsider its benign stance.
Shim Jae-hoon in a Seoul-based journalist. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online. http://yaleglobal.yale.edu