Why North Korea’s nuclear test may not be all bad
Deng Yuwen says the recent test, a slap in the face for both China and the US, could have a sobering effect on the two powers, sharpening the choices before them and strengthening their resolve to cooperate for a solution – by military means if necessary
The test was both unsurprising and surprising. It was not surprising because we know Pyongyang needed to run more tests to build up its nuclear capacity, so a sixth test would have happened sooner or later. Even so, the timing was a surprise. Harsh UN sanctions are in place, after all , and the international community had expected North Korea to ease off. Even the US thought Pyongyang was demonstrating restraint.
As it turned out, the world was wrong. Notably, moreover, the North launched its test on September 3, just as China was hosting the BRICS summit in Xiamen. No doubt the test was a show of defiance aimed at both China and the US.
But Pyongyang’s gambit may well backfire. Over the past year, since its fifth nuclear test, every test-firing of a missile has brought on a debate about how to rein in the North Korean regime, dividing China and the US. But, with this sixth test, the gap between them will narrow.
The test directly challenged China’s bottom line. I believe a red line had been drawn: China would not tolerate a sixth test. That is perhaps why, although Chinese intelligence had sounded repeated warnings of an imminent North Korean nuclear test in the past, none of them had materialised – until now. The North Koreans might have been wary of crossing China’s red line.
On its part, China has not only repeatedly called for calm throughout the crisis, but also rejected any US proposal to use force. It had also opposed crippling UN sanctions, for fear of pushing Pyongyang into a corner.
China has done its level best to protect North Korean interests. Yet Pyongyang’s repeated provocations, particularly its test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile and threats to strike Guam, have, by needling Washington, made things difficult for Beijing. The Trump administration has leaned hard on Beijing to restrain North Korea. And from Pyongyang’s perspective, China has acquiesced. Thus Pyongyang felt it could do as it pleased.
Watch: North Korea, China and the US react to Kim’s H-bomb test
The nuclear test was a slap in China’s face – a huge embarrassment. The outcome made clear that Beijing’s call for all sides to stand down in the nuclear stand-off had been little more than its own wishful thinking. The test also ensured China would have no more reasonable defence in its objection to THAAD. It may one day have to stand by and watch South Korea become nuclear-armed. These are the consequences of China’s long-time policy of appeasing North Korea.
However, the latest development is not necessarily a bad thing. The nuclear test has left no room for any more “deliberate ambiguity”, and will force China to finally take a stand. What’s next then? China can either impose tougher sanctions on North Korea, wait for the US to further nuclearise the Korean peninsula, or even launch a military strike against Pyongyang.
China has realised these are its options. After the fifth nuclear test, Beijing issued statements expressing its “strong objections”, urging Pyongyang to stop all actions that would aggravate the situation and advocated a return to six-party talks. After this latest test, its tone was much tougher. Beijing not only strongly condemned the test, it also made no mention of the six-party talks. Instead, it urged Pyongyang to return to a realistic track of dialogue towards resolution. Thus, unless North Korea stands down, China’s stance will only get tougher.
Watch: The US says North Korean regime is ‘begging for war’
The nuclear test was also a slap in the face for the Trump administration. For 10 days after the UN agreed on tough new sanctions on North Korea, Pyongyang kept relatively quiet. As a result, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson applauded its restraint and President Donald Trump even fantasised about beginning talks with North Korea. Pyongyang repaid such “trust” by firing a missile over Japan, and conducted another nuclear test in an apparent response to joint military drills by the US, South Korea and Japan.
With the nuclear bomb, the US learned a lesson about Kim Jong-un’s stubborn ruthlessness. The choices before it have also become clearer. The military option must now be seriously considered. Of course, the US would still prefer a peaceful solution, but the possibility of a military strike has greatly increased.
The nuclear test has pushed China and the US a step closer towards cooperation. If neither wants to see North Korea become a nuclear power, they must put aside their mutual suspicion and work together, based on shared interests.
On its part, China must actively cut off oil and food supplies for North Korea. This will tear apart the bilateral relationship, for sure, and may not even deter Pyongyang from its current path, but it’s the only way to send a firm message to Pyongyang that its possession of nuclear weapons will not be tolerated. It would also strike Pyongyang where it hurts.
China has long worried that such sanctions would lead to a North Korean collapse and a humanitarian disaster. If it is true, then Pyongyang would surely stop its aggression to ensure the people’s survival. If it did not care enough to stop its provocations, why should the international community be worried about its demise?
The moment of truth approaches. It is now up to the North Korean government to choose life, or death.
Deng Yuwen is a researcher at the Charhar Institute think tank