[Viewpoint] The inevitability of a nuke test

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[Viewpoint] The inevitability of a nuke test

The world is again tense over the possibility of another nuclear test by North Korea. China protected the North from harsh international punitive actions following the two previous tests. But this time may be different. Through a foreign ministry spokesman, China pronounced opposition to the plan and newspapers of the Chinese Communist Party issued an unequivocal warning to Pyongyang. Beijing may be trying to tame North Korea’s new hereditary ruler. Does North Korea have the guts to carry out the plan without a blessing from China?

The North’s past nuclear tests followed missile launches and international condemnation and actions. Its weapons program had no correlation with its status quo with the United States or South Korea.

When it detonated a nuclear bomb in 2007, North Korea’s relationship with the U.S. was rocky. Washington used its influence to freeze the North’s bank accounts in Macau’s Banco Delta Asia, disrupting the isolated state’s international financial transactions and obscure trade deals. In July, North Korea launched long-range missiles and the UN Security Council issued resolution 1695. North Korea announced the plan for a nuclear test on Oct. 3 and blasted it off six days later, a move that was followed by Security Council resolution 1718.

North Korea carried out its second underground nuclear test in May 2009 when inter-Korean relations had been locked in a stalemate following the killing of a South Korean tourist on Mount Kumgang in North Korea in July 2008. Following the shooting, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il had been confined to bed after suffering a stroke. Washington used the momentum to offer reconciliatory gestures toward Pyongyang, including lifting the country’s name off the terrorism state sponsors. U.S. President Barack Obama upon inauguration also kept up peaceful gestures. North Korea nevertheless launched a rocket carrying a satellite which the international community identified as a trial run of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

The move exacted a presidential statement from the Security Council. Pyongyang, however, unabashedly announced a plan for a nuclear test on April 29 and set off a nuclear device on May 25. The Security Council passed resolution 1874 comprising of stronger sanctions. But North Korea remained recalcitrant, going public with its facility engaged in the enrichment of uranium.

North Korea proceeded with a long-range missile and nuclear programs regardless of its relationship with South Korea and the U.S. When Pyongyang tested a nuclear device in 2006 for the first time, it had been on amicable terms with Seoul albeit uncomfortable with Washington. Relations with the two states had been the other way around when North Korea detonated a nuclear device for the second time in 2009.

But the chain of events panned out in the same pattern - firing missiles, international response, nuclear test and sanctions. Following the recent rocket launch, the UN Security Council slapped fresh sanctions on three North Korean state companies. According to its track record, North Korea should be following through with a nuclear test.

Satellite images indicate renewed underground work at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in northern North Korea. It is apparently ready to set off a new nuclear device. South Korean and U.S. officials believe the upcoming nuclear test is motivated to demonstrate “political will” rather than a technological purpose, following the face-losing flop of the April 13 rocket launch.

But there is a feature in the anticipated nuclear detonation unlike in the previous two tests. The first test was implemented three months after the missile launch and there was less than a two-month gap in the second test. Pyongyang forewarned six days and 26 days prior, respectively, of the past two tests. Twenty-one days have passed since the failed rocket launch, but Pyongyang remains mum despite international speculation.

In the backdrop, Kim Young-il, North Korea’s Workers’ Party director of international affairs, visited Beijing and met with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Some believe Hu expressed opposition to North Korea’s nuclear test. Others claim an ulterior motive from Pyongyang. Kim is believed to have relayed a wish to visit Beijing from the regime’s new leader Kim Jong-un.

By visiting Beijing, the younger Kim may be aiming to exhibit to the world that China remains its faithful patron. He may also be looking for fresh financial and economic gifts from China to take home and win respect from residents. Pyongyang for the time being cannot afford a provocative move that could upset Beijing. The North may sit on the third nuclear test for some time.

It doesn’t mean that the North will give up the nuclear card. Once it detonates a uranium device and flaunts its ability to make uranium-based nuclear weapons, North Korea undoubtedly becomes a nuclear-armed state. Pyongyang will likely carry out the plan. It is now only a matter of time.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kang Young-jin
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