(Yomiuri: January 7, 2016 – p. 13)
Interview with Kwansei Gakuin University Professor Shunji Hiraiwa by international news reporter Atsushi Ueda
North Korea’s latest hydrogen bomb test was different in several ways from its previous nuclear tests.
First, there was no prior notice to China. This indicates that the China-DPRK relationship has deteriorated to an extent where Beijing now has very little influence on Pyongyang. China was probably seriously shocked.
China sent Liu Yunshan, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China who is the fifth ranking official in the party, to the Pyongyang’s celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) last October. At that time, North Korea had been hinting at firing missiles but refrained from doing so in the end. It is believed that Liu’s visit did the trick. China must have thought that it still had a tacit understanding with North Korea.
It is noteworthy that First Secretary Kim Jong Un is supposed to have ordered the hydrogen bomb experiment last Dec. 15. A few days before that, on Dec. 12, the Moranbong Band, an all- female music group the DPRK sent to Beijing, returned home abruptly right before their performances were to start. It is conceivable that some sort of deterioration of bilateral relations occurred around this time.
Second, North Korea followed a different “procedure” for this nuclear test. In the past, the DPRK would launch missiles first and follow up with a nuclear test as a reaction to rising criticism from the international community. This modus operandi was designed to catch the international community’s attention, stir up a crisis, and draw concessions from the U.S. It is possible that the latest test was meant to show the world that the DPRK is a nuclear power in the run-up to the first WPK congress in 37 years taking place in May.
In any case, conducting a nuclear test without prior notice may signal the DPRK’s open defiance of China’s pressure. While China has no intention to cast its lot with North Korea, it must have been shocked and enraged. The security environment in Northeast Asia may not have entered a new stage, but this is indeed a major incident that may result in regional instability.
The international community is certain to impose stronger sanctions. While strengthening Japan-U.S.-ROK cooperation is important in this process, China’s response will also be a key factor. It will have to make a difficult decision of whether to cooperate with Japan, the U.S., and others in pressuring North Korea or to relax tension through bilateral talks.
The Japan-China and U.S.-China relationships are not exactly amicable in the area of security in light of China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. On the other hand, its influence on North Korea is also dwindling. It will be a difficult choice either way.
It is possible that North Korea also took into account such differences among the concerned nations in its decision to conduct the nuclear test.