Pyongyang said the Tuesday morning explosion was part of an effort to protect its national security and sovereignty, citing US opposition to the recent North Korean space launch.
"It was confirmed that the nuclear test – that was carried out at a high level in a safe and perfect manner using a miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously – did not pose any negative impact on the surrounding ecological environment," North Korea's KCNA state news agency said.
South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye strongly condemned the move. She said her incoming administration would not tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea “under any circumstances,” and pledged to enact strong deterrence measures against Pyongyang's nuclear program.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has urged all parties involved to reduce tensions and solve the issue through dialogue in the framework of six-party talks. It also expressed “firm opposition” to the test, called on North Korea not to take any actions that would aggravate the situation, and to “honor its commitment to denuclearization''.
Responding to North Korean provocation involves a deep strategic dilemma: Because of the regime’s paranoia and insecurity, any response on the part of the U.S. and its allies, even a measured one, risks sparking dangerous, even disastrous escalation.
Failing to respond to provocation seems to encourage the North Koreans to push even harder and more violently, using their sordid talent for using threats to extort concessions and aid to compensate for the state’s economic failure. Unlike other aggressively insecure states -- Iran, for instance -- there is little indication that the North Korean regime can be placated by realistic diplomatic measures. Pyongyang's paranoia is not simply a reflection of its strategic predicament, but an ingrained element of its identity.
Over the past few decades, North Korea has developed a penchant for aggression just below the threshold that would cause the United States, South Korea and other states to respond in kind. As its economy rots and one member of the Kim dynasty gives way to another, the provocations expand. They reached new peaks in March 2010 when a North Korean submarine sank a South Korean navy ship, and in November 2010 when the North Korean military shelled a South Korean island, killing two soldiers. Even more ominously, North Korea has worked strenuously to develop more powerful ballistic missiles that may, at some time in the future, be armed with nuclear weapons.
North Korea’s neighbors face the enduring possibility that desperation or miscalculation may lead the regime to strike out even more violently, either concluding that it will face wholesale economic collapse or political upheaval if does not, or through the belief that it has so cowed the United States, South Korea, Japan and China that it can commit aggression with impunity. Given this, the United States needs a careful plan for how to respond.
The appropriate response, of course, depends on the nature of the provocation, for which Pyongyang’s options include relatively low-level aggression, such as regime involvement in organized crime, the sale of missile and nuclear technology and limited attacks on South Korea; potentially more dangerous missile strikes against other nations; a large-scale conventional invasion of South Korea; and, worst of all, the use of nuclear weapons.
Continued North Korean missile launches are likely. So far the North’s ballistic missile program has been plagued with large doses of ineptness sometimes bordering on the comic. But the program is getting better, thus making it harder to distinguish a test aimed at the open sea from a strike at Japan, the United States or elsewhere. Given this, the United States should consider a policy of shooting down North Korean missiles that have left that nation's airspace.
A large-scale North Korean conventional assault against South Korea is less likely but not impossible. After all, Pyongyang has been preparing for an attack since the 1950s, stationing huge numbers of troops on the border, building extensive special operations capabilities and developing the methods to infiltrate troops into the South through tunnels, amphibious landings and other means. Given the vast military superiority of South Korea and support from the United States, a North Korean invasion would fail, but it could still do massive damage in the process. Most worrisome of all, North Korea could use nuclear weapons either through some sort of demonstration explosion or, once its capability advanced, an actual strike, possibly on Japan or a U.S. target.
What, then, should the United States and its allies do? Certainly efforts to increase missile defense are justified and necessary. Pressure to encourage China to diminish or end military support to North Korea would also be worthwhile. China has long attempted to walk a fine line on North Korea, criticizing Pyongyang’s provocations while seeking to keep the regime in place lest there be a united Korea dominated by Seoul on the Chinese border.
The contradictions of Chinese policy are shown by its provision of launch trucks for North Korean mobile missiles, in violation of international sanctions, followed by Beijing’s acceptance of a U.N. Security Council resolution tightening sanctions on Pyongyang and indications that China would cut assistance if North Korea undertook further nuclear tests.
Most importantly, the United States should issue an explicit policy statement on North Korean provocation to diminish the chances of miscalculation by Kim Jong Un. The statement should indicate that the United States will shoot down any North Korean rocket or missile aimed at or crossing over the United States or an allied state. Washington should state that a nuclear demonstration will result in a sustained U.S. campaign against North Korea military targets. And, importantly, the United States should clearly state that any major attack by North Korea against American targets or allies will result in the removal of the Kim regime and the building of a democracy in North Korea.
Regime replacement would be immensely expensive in both blood and money, especially at a time when the American military and defense budget is being highly politicized. But North Korea is the only nation on earth where internal conflicts or regime psychosis, rather than any external actions, might prompt the regime to unleash a nuclear or conventional Armageddon. For this reason, it is vital that Kim and his cronies clearly understand the costs of future provocations.
By Guylain Gustave Moke