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A test of the collective will of the United States, China, and South Korea

(Asahi: January 7, 2016 – p. 8)


 Interview with Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations


 Regardless of whether or not North Korea’s claims to have conducted a test of a “hydrogen bomb” are true, the test occurs in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning that nation for conducting three previous tests and despite repeated warnings by the leaders of the United States, South Korea, and China not to do so.


 Moreover, the test comes two weeks after North Korea’s launching of a potentially nuclear-capable missile from a submarine. By pursuing such a course of action, Kim Jong-un has issued a challenge to the international community and has underscored the magnitude of the danger posed by North Korea’s actions. It may no longer be possible to check the increasing threat from North Korea by slapping that nation on the wrist with Security Council resolutions.


 The complex challenge facing the United States and the global community is how to impose costs on the reclusive state without opening a new front in a seeming contagion of global instability. Escalation of a crisis with North Korea would likely open a “Pandora’s Box” of difficult geopolitical, humanitarian, and military challenges. Yet, efforts to defer these challenges will only guarantee that the problems on the Korean peninsula will grow more complex and costly in the future.


 South Korea’s foreign minister stated in April of 2014 that North Korea’s fourth nuclear test would be a “game changer,” but this will only be the case if the United States, South Korea, and China can lead a response that imposes real costs on Pyongyang. In that sense, this nuclear test by North Korea could become a true test of the collective will of the United States, China, and South Korea, as well as the entire global community.


 Another complication is that North Korea’s fourth nuclear test may actually be an unintended consequence of the convergence of opposition among China, the United States, and South Korea to North Korea’s nuclear development. The main cause of failures of North Korean diplomatic outreach to China and other countries has been those nations’ opposition to Pyongyang’s continued nuclear development. Kim Jong-un may have ordered the fourth nuclear test as an expression of frustration.


 With this, however, Kim has made it even more difficult for North Korea to escape increasing international opposition. One wrinkle in the North Korean announcement is the seemingly desperate reach for prestige represented by the claim that the country had mastered the technology necessary to detonate a hydrogen bomb. Such a claim in the absence of conclusive corroborating evidence conveys desperation and weakness from a regime that has increasingly stood on claims to North Korea’s nuclear status as a source of domestic legitimacy.


 The United States, South Korea, and China have a vested interest in imposing a tangible cost on North Korea beyond rhetoric for its act of nuclear defiance, but the task of working together to agree on and impose such a cost is the true test of whether North Korea’s fourth nuclear test is truly a “game changer.” (Interviewer: Daisuke Igarashi)


 Profile of Scott A. Snyder: Specialist in the politics and foreign policy of North and South Korea. Formerly he served as senior associate at The Asia Foundation and acting director at the Asia Society. He has provided advice to NGOs and humanitarian organizations active in North Korea.

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