N. Korea’s predictable unpredictability

By John J. Metzler

Not one week into the new year, the North Koreans jolted the world as well as the Richter scale with a nuclear weapons test. While the underground blast shook the remote Punggye-ri region near the Russian border, the political reverberations of the bomb have been felt globally, from East Asia to the United Nations on the East River. Thus days after North Korean’s unpredictable dictator, Kim Jong Un, delivered a fairly conciliatory New Year’s message, the leader then gave the orders for what was deemed to be a hydrogen bomb test. Seoul’s respected Korea Times opined, “Ever unpredictable, North Korea surprised the world again.” Putting it another way, with Pyongyang, expect the unexpected.

Whether the weapon was a hydrogen bomb or a smaller nuclear weapon, the fact remains that the defiant “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (DPRK) has thrust itself into the headlines. The international community, most especially South Korea, Japan and the United States roundly condemned the move, as did even North Korea’s erstwhile ally the People’s Republic of China. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, himself a South Korean, stated, “This act is profoundly destabilizing for regional security and seriously undermines international non-proliferation efforts. I condemn it unequivocally.” Ban demanded that the DPRK cease further nuclear activities.

The U.N. Security Council met in emergency session and “strongly condemned” the test that is in serious violation of a number of resolutions. Given the gravity of the situation, the council will begin work on a new resolution that would likely tighten sanctions on the DPRK. Importantly, as Japan has assumed its seat for a two-year term, the council may have extra impetus for serious sanctions action in response to Pyongyang’s recklessness. Japan’s U.N. Ambassador Motohide Yoshikawa, called for a swift and robust new U.N. resolution.

Even China “firmly opposes,” the latest nuclear test. While originally indulging and enabling its communist comrade, in recent years Beijing has become decidedly nervous about North Korea being a loose cannon. Nuclear weapons tests are destabilizing and nowhere more so than to neighboring mainland China where the economic downturn does not need a negative downdraft of unpredictability and crisis. Beijing knows this is bad for business and wider stability.

This is the fourth North Korean nuclear test since 2006; the DPRK holds the dubious distinction as being the only country to have tested nuclear weapons this century.