As a growing number of countries and organizations condemned North Korea’s launch of its fifth and largest nuclear test to date on Friday, some foreign affairs experts who follow the nation suggested that the regime of Kim Jong Un will continue pursuing its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea conducted the test on the 68th anniversary of its founding near its Punggye-ri nuclear site in North Hamgyong province in the country’s northeastern region, where the detonation triggered a 5.3-magnitude earthquake. Later, it reported that it had successfully tested a nuclear warhead that could be mounted on a missile.
The nuclear test was the country’s fifth in the past decade and the third under Kim Jong Un, who came to power in 2012 and has sought to build up the country’s nuclear capabilities. The North's previous nuclear tests were conducted in 2006, 2009, 2013, and January of this year.
The test brought immediate condemnation by the United States, South Korea, and the United Nations, which have sought to contain North Korea but have largely failed to rein in the rogue regime and its continual violations of its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Pakistan, France, and Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, also publicly condemned the test on Friday.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who just returned from meetings of the Group of 20 major economies and an East Asia Summit in Asia, issued a statement calling the test “a flagrant violation of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions,” saying that his counterparts were united in a call for North Korea to return to a path of denuclearization.
During the G-20 meeting in Hangzhou, China, on Monday, North Korea fired three ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast.
Obama also said that he, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will work together to take additional significant steps, including new sanctions, to show Pyongyang that there are consequences to its actions.
Later, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement saying that the U.S. and nations around the world condemned the nuclear test “as a grave threat to regional security and to international peace and security.”
“This action is as destabilizing as it is unlawful, flagrantly violating multiple U.N. Security Council Resolutions and the DPRK’s own commitments,” Kerry’s statement said, referring to North Korea by its full name the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
It went on to say the U.S. is prepared “to take whatever measures are necessary to ensure our alliances continue to defend against this growing threat to international peace and security.”
Unwillingness to negotiate
At the behest of the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, the 15-member U.N. Security Council discussed the test at a closed-door meeting on Friday to determine whether it should impose additional sanctions, the Associated Press reported.
In March, the Security Council handed tougher sanctions to North Korea than it has in the past after Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test and rocket launch earlier this year, defying a ban on nuclear-related activity.
“At this point, Kim Jong Un seems to have no willingness to negotiate with the U.S. or South Korea,” said Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea who writes commentaries for Radio Free Asia.
“North Korea’s goal is to develop several dozens of nuclear warheads to be tipped onto ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles], SLBMS [submarine-launched ballistic missiles], and other long-range ballistic missiles to attack the U.S. continent,” Lankov said.
“Only after North Korea achieves its goal can it open up some possibility to resume negotiations with the U.S.,” he told RFA’s Korean Service. “But even then, North Korea’s purpose of negotiation is not to achieve denuclearization, but nuclear arms control.”
Lankov raised doubts that further sanctions would deter the regime from its nuclear buildup or actually harm it financially. The sanctions imposed by the U.N. early this year have had “no tangible effect yet,” and little evidence exists that they have lowered residents’ living standards, he said.
“Whatever sanctions North Korea might be put under, the Kim Jong Un regime will never give up its nuclear programs,” he said. “Those most directly hit by the sanctions are ordinary North Korean residents, not the elites.”
“Of course, the North Korean leadership doesn’t like the sufferings of its people caused by the sanctions, but they don’t think their suffering is as important as the survival of North Korea’s socialist system as well as their continued grip on power,” he said.
A brutal regime’s fantasy
David Straub, former chief of the Korea and Japan desks at the U.S. State Department during the 2000s, said the latest test is an indication that North Korea intends for its nuclear program to strengthen the regime at home and intimidate its foreign adversaries abroad.
“Pyongyang believes that if it can credibly threaten the United States with nuclear attack, sooner or later Washington will engage it in a diplomatic process that will eventually result in the end of the U.S.-South Korea alliance and pave the way for Pyongyang to unify the Korean Peninsula on its terms,” he said.
“This is the fantasy of an isolated, brutal regime desperate to get out of the domestic political and strategic box that it is in, but it is precisely the reason that Pyongyang is pressing as fast as it can with nuclear and missile development and even lying to exaggerate its capabilities,” he said.
He called on the U.S. and South Korea to support even tougher measures to make North Korean leaders realize that nuclear weapons will not help them, including additional economic and financial sanctions, human rights sanctions, counter-proliferation measures, diplomatic condemnation, and defensive military efforts.
“Ultimately, the pressures must become so great that either the North Korean leaders change their strategy, or their compatriots among the elite change the leaders themselves,” he said. “This may well take considerable time, but there is no viable alternative.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Friday called for further pressure on North Korea, but said that China also bears “responsibility” for tackling the problem, Agence France-Presse reported.
Condemnation by China
China also condemned North Korea for conducting the nuclear test and criticized its ally for carrying it out with "disregard" for international objections, according to a government statement.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters Friday that the country will formally and strongly protest North Korea's nuclear test with Pyongyang's ambassador in Beijing, AP reported.
China hesitated before throwing its support behind U.N. sanctions against the country earlier this year and currently opposes the planned deployment by the U.S. and South Korea of an advanced anti-ballistic missile system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).
Lankov pointed out that although China applied very strict U.N. sanctions against North Korea from March to August this year, its outlook toward Pyongyang changed once the decision to deploy THAAD was announced. But he said the latest nuclear test will force it to do another about-face.
“There appeared to be a sign of China easing its attitude toward North Korea following Seoul’s decision,” he said. “Given North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, however, Beijing, though dissatisfied with Seoul’s THAAD decision, will most likely harden its attitude toward Pyongyang again.“
Citizens are outraged
Meanwhile, ordinary citizens who live in China close to North Korea have expressed outrage about the country’s latest nuclear test, the blast from which is said to have been “more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima,” according to analysts cited by Reuters news agency.
“We feel disgusted about the nuclear test because it is so close to us,” said a resident of Yanji in northeast China’s Jilin province.
Yanji is the seat of China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where a large number of ethnic Koreans reside, and serves as a transport and trade hub between China and North Korea.
“I hope the Chinese government stands up and at least allows us to protest if it can’t stop them from conducting the test,” the Jilin resident told RFA. “We feel that the Chinese government always gives in to North Korea on many other issues.”
A woman surnamed Wang, who lives in Jilin’s Changbai county, said residents there are worried that nuclear fallout from the blast has polluted water sources.
Authorities in the area are supposedly doing radiation tests, but the local government hasn’t publicly said anything yet, she said.
“Anyway, they said it [the blast] was an earthquake caused by a nuclear test in North Korea,” she told RFA. “It didn’t impact us, but we don’t know if our water got polluted.”
A public relations official from Yanji confirmed that authorities have sent a team to monitor radiation, but that the earthquake caused by the blast hasn’t appeared to have caused any damage such as road cracks.
Japan’s NHK news agency said the country’s Nuclear Regulation Authority is also examining radiation levels at monitoring stations across the country.
Reported by Changsop Pyon for RFA’s Korean Service, and by RFA’s Mandarin and Cantonese services. Translated by RFA’s Korean, Mandarin, and Cantonese services. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.