As North Korea gears up to celebrate its biggest national day so far, the ‘Day of the Sun’ when it will mark the 105th anniversary of the birth of its founding president, Kim Il Sung on Saturday – tensions in the region are at an all-time high. On April 25, it will also mark the 85th anniversary of the creation of the Korean People’s Army. In 2012, North Korea had tried to launch a long-range rocket carrying a satellite to mark the date, but failed. Then, last year, Pyongyang tested a newly developed intermediate-range missile. Since the start of 2016, the reclusive nation has been intensifying its nuclear capabilities and has tested several ballistic missiles.
The day after the triumphant announcement of Pyongyang, which said it had successfully tested the first hydrogen bomb made in the nuclear facilities of North Korea, a demand bounces between the United Nations and the chancelleries of the major global powers: what to do now?
For now, it must be said, skepticism prevails about the actual extent of the nuclear detonation obtained by the technicians of Pyongyang. The explosion occurred in the north of the country, near the Chinese border, was recorded by seismographs with a power between 4.8 and 5.1 on the Richter scale. According to South Korean experts, such a seismic response could correspond with a power of six kilotons, about a third of that given off by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 and substantially incompatible with what would have been produced by a thermonuclear device, whose power is calculated generally in hundreds of kilotons. For comparison, the thermonuclear test conducted by the United States, in 1971, on the island of Amchitka in Alaska, produced an earthquake of magnitude 6.8, exponentially higher than that recorded yesterday.
It was an atomic bomb, therefore, and not an hydrogen one, that would require a technology that the regime of President Kim Yong-A probably still does not have. However, yesterday’s is the fourth test of North Korea, after those of 2006, 2009 and 2013; an explicit provocation against the American enemy, South Korea, Japan, Chinese ally, increasingly frustrated by the actions of the regime and, in general, of the international community. One answer seems inevitable, while studying new strategies to contain the North Korean threat in the medium term.
The Security Council of the United Nations immediately expressed its strong condemnation, saying that ” a clear threat to international peace and security continues to exist “, and announced new measures against Pyongyang for which is expected, in short, a resolution.
Among the most determined, the Japanese ambassador to the UN, Motohide Yoshikawa, who has called for a quick and vigorous resolution. ” The authority and credibility of the Security Council – he said – will be put in question if it does not take these measures.” It is not clear yet what kind of sanctions should be adopted and in what timeframe, while Russia pulls the brake, through his ambassador, not guaranteeing Moscow’s support for the adoption of additional sanctions. Indeed Pyongyang seems determined to go forward on the path of nuclear power, despite international condemnation and sanctions triggered by previous nuclear tests. Why should it be different this time?
A question that is not so relevant for the historical opponents of the regime. US, South Korea and Japan said they are prepared for a unified response against Pyongyang. President Obama has spoken with South Korean Prime Minister Park Geun-Hye and with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and then he has declared that three leaders agreed to ” agreed to work together to forge a united and strong international response to North Korea’s latest reckless behaviour”. He was echoed by President Abe: ” We agreed that the provocative act by North Korea is unacceptable… We will deal with this situation in a firm manner through the cooperation with the United Nations Security Council “, but added that Japan intends, if it will consider it necessary, to take unilateral measures. Seoul has finally released an official statement, asking the international community to ensure that “North Korea pays the corresponding price ” for its nuclear tests. In parallel, it has restricted access to the industrial park in Kaesong, managed jointly by the North and South and announced the restoration of propaganda broadcasts across the North Korean borders, interrupted in 2015 to ease tensions with the neighbor.
After this phase of hot reactions and new sanctions organization, it will be necessary to understand how to deal with a country that has a nuclear arsenal consisting of twenty devices (atomic or hydrogen they may be) and that might be able today, or in the short term, to mount a nuclear warhead on a medium-range missile, capable of threatening the South, Japan, the US troops stationed in the area and, perhaps, even the western coasts of the United States.
UN sanctions never had appreciable effects and the strategy of “strategic patience”, adopted by the US, could be tinged with excessive optimism. The idea that the sanctions could oblige the North Korean regime to yield and accept nuclear disarmament looks less and less convincing. To date, the US has refused to negotiate, if not on their terms, with North Korea, then choosing a different strategy from the one adopted for Iran, which has led to the recent negotiations and the subsequent agreement with Tehran.
As argued recently by Stephen W. Bosworth, the first Obama’s special envoy for North Korea, ” Whatever risks might be associated with new talks, they are less than those that come with doing nothing.” Since no power seems really willing to challenge militarily a dangerous enemy as North Korea, the game will have to be played on the field of diplomacy, before Pyongyang’s arsenal will be strengthened further and its missiles pointing technology taken to an higher level.
The strategy of Kim Yong-A is clear: the nuclear arsenal is a life insurance for the country and its enemies have only to lose, in front of the prospect of a dramatic conflict. Whether they like it or not, they will have to accept to sit at the negotiating table and recognize to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea the status of nuclear power. It is too early to say whether the facts will give him reason but the wind caused by the explosion, for now, seems to blow in his favor.