A master in provocation, the Stalinist regime of North Korea is playing the same game once again. To guarantee its survival, it is moving slowly but surely towards the possession of nuclear weapons, taking advantage of divisions within the international community.
Monday’s underground nuclear test, after a first test in 2006, is a challenge for the new American administration. Will Barack Obama respond to this test with more success than his predecessor, George W. Bush? The world is watching and waiting for the answer. The White House, already facing a host of intractable problems, would be in a better position if it put an end to this additional headache.
North Korea went all out in its effort to be taken seriously. Pyongyang had already sent a message last month by attempting to put a satellite into orbit with a long-range rocket. In the aftermath of Monday’s atomic test, missile firings took place in the east and west of the peninsula, and there is speculation about restarting the Yongbyon plant, where plutonium is enriched. Moreover, Pyongyang declared the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War null and void and has threatened to intervene militarily if Seoul decides to inspect North Korean vessels under a 2003 Proliferation Security Initiative.
Tensions between the two Koreas have been high for a long time now. If the escalation continues, the slightest provocation could turn the situation into an armed conflict.
Despite the secrecy surrounding power in Pyongyang, the behavior of the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il is not very difficult to decrypt. Having suffered a stroke last summer, the dictator is undoubtedly seeking to show that he is in charge and that his family controls the government at a time when a difficult succession is about to be undertaken. Nobody has yet found an effective response to this unique strategy of brinksmanship not used by any other regime in the world.
Bill Clinton tried cooperation; George W. Bush tried confrontation. Neither of the two methods was successful.
This time, the condemnation of Pyongyang was unanimous, with stronger words than usual coming from Russia and China. But there is doubt that these two countries are ready to adopt effective sanctions. Moscow risks committing its full support while Beijing remains the main source of resources for Pyongyang and fears that a collapse of the regime would trigger a movement of refugees across their shared border.
Like South Korea, Japan is worried. The threat that has emerged favors those who want to increase the defensive capabilities of the archipelago.
Barack Obama is not likely to fall into the trap set by the provocation of Kim Jong-Il. Still, he has to show that his new approach to diplomacy is more effective than his predecessors’ in convincing Beijing and Moscow to isolate the dangerous North Korea.