Why another North Korean nuclear test isn’t a game changer
By now, a familiar pattern has emerged.
Pyongyang tests a bomb or a rocket and makes a grand declaration about its success. Quickly, others deny that they’ve accomplished quite what they say, questioning the yield of the explosion or the success of the launch – this time, Pyongyang stated they detonated a hydrogen bomb – foreign experts question that claim. The media publishes photos of South Koreans watching TV news, looking anxious (They aren’t.) Members of the United Nations Security Council get together and a couple of weeks later and passes a resolution condemning the test and adding sanctions.
What might the effects of Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test be?
Internationally, though the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) draws global ire with each test, it does cement its status in an elite club: ballistic missile and nuclear weapons technology are the preserve of very few countries. Citizens of North Korea — and especially Pyongyang — are unsurprisingly proud of this: after the 2013 nuclear test, many offices knocked off early and celebrated with hearty amounts of food, soju and beer. No doubt, similar frivolities are taking place today, especially since it is Kim Jong Un’s birthday on the 8th. Whatever else they may think of the their country’s policies, the vast majority of North Koreans accept their government’s position that a nuclear deterrent is needed against the superpower on their doorstep, the United States.
Meanwhile, North Korea continues to develop its economy, despite some significant challenges and missteps in 2015. This has helped earn its young leader considerable grace in the eyes of his populace and is at the heart of his domestic brand. The nuclear program is his father’s legacy, but Kim Jong Un came to power talking about not only military might, but economic growth and quality of life issues. The combination of visible improvement on the latter and the heritage of the former has helped his image considerably.
In the international arena, the test will elicit a few responses from its neighbors.
First — though not technically a neighbor — in Washington, the appetite for sanctions legislation or targeted actions by the U.S. Treasury Department will increase. Indeed, the U.S. Congress has been working on three separate sanctions bills in the past year, linked to human rights. The nuclear test may increase the likelihood that the more strongly worded bills pass.
Also, as it is an election year, the multiplicity of remaining candidates will have a chance to talk tough about North Korea, criticizing past administrations, while offering implausible solutions, if they offer any at all. If current patterns hold, Donald Trump will say something particularly ridiculous and everyone else will have to react. Regardless, with Islamic State the world’s most pressing crisis, the nuclear test keeps North Korea on the foreign policy agenda, something that Pyongyang generally likes.
Second, Beijing’s leadership is displeased with the DPRK’s nuclear program, but as Pyongyang’s ally, doesn’t share Washington’s enthusiasm for pressure. The next couple weeks will see intense negotiations between China and the United States on who or what to target with UN sanctions. They will quickly agree to a Security Council resolution, but it is unlikely that they will step up enforcement or other means of censure beyond what they did in 2013. Moscow is likely to follow Beijing’s lead and Japan, Washington’s.
Seoul’s corporate and political classes, meanwhile, have been increasingly interested in the past year in getting involved in North Korea’s economy again; something largely impossible since 2010, when Seoul slapped sanctions on Pyongyang after the sinking of a southern warship. They have – perhaps belated – begun to worry that they have ceded too much influence to China in the past half-decade.
Until the nuclear test, it appeared likely that a consortium of major South Korean companies would invest in a Russian-DPRK rail and port project in the far northeast, getting some sort of exemption from the Park Geun-hye administration. This is probably no longer possible, as conservatives in her administration will be energized by the test. Washington will also be unexcited about South Korea and Russia cooperating in the DPRK.
Ultimately, except in technical terms, this nuclear test is largely a status-quo event. Kim Jong Un’s domestic position is cemented further. Beijing continues to be frustrated by its ally, Seoul by its lack of influence. Washington’s options are also limited, but its response is the most unknown: will it extend its own sanctions regime just a little or push more broadly than it has before?
Whether a more robust response will increase the punitive impact on North Korea is another question yet. If the pattern holds, probably not.
Andray Abrahamian is a Honorary Fellow at Macquarie University @draylien