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Academic says North Korea H-bomb test aimed at pressuring U.S.

  • 2016-01-07 15:00:00
  • , Mainichi
  • Translation

(Mainichi: January 7, 2016 – p. 6)


 Interview with Professor Lee Jong-won, director of Institute of Korean Studies, Waseda University


 Recent developments in North Korea and First Secretary Kim Jong Un’s New Year message have seemed to indicate that the country is leaning toward prioritizing its economy and the people’s livelihood. With the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) congress taking place in May and rumors of a China-North Korea summit, North Korea would appear to be moving toward “rapprochement.” Why now? The hydrogen bomb test indeed came as a surprise. Even the U.S., which has been keeping a 24-hour watch on North Korea’s nuclear facilities, was unable to detect this move. The usual North Korean statements hinting at a nuclear test were also absent. The test was probably prepared very meticulously and in great secrecy.


 North Korea’s conflict with China is probably behind this nuclear test, which could well be its reaction to China’s pressure to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Its resounding answer to such pressure was this nuclear test.


 On the other hand, the U.S.-China relationship seems to be heading toward “conflict” rather than “cooperation.” Although the Xi Jinping regime is taking a tough stance toward the DPRK, the situation is conducive for the Chinese military and others to side with North Korea. The DPRK might have taken this into account when making its decision to conduct the test. My impression is that this was a major gamble to resist China’s pressure in light of the state of the U.S.-China relationship.


 However, North Korea’s ultimate goal in playing its nuclear trump card is to rattle the U.S. Its statement on the test emphasized a “smaller and lighter” nuclear bomb. While a more detailed study will be needed to determine if the detonated device was indeed a hydrogen bomb, there is no doubt that Pyongyang now possesses sophisticated nuclear technology. It is also striving to improve the technology of the Taepodong and other long-range ballistic missiles. It is attempting to pressure the U.S. by demonstrating the capability to launch a nuclear attack against the U.S. mainland. Its goal is to make the U.S. recognize the DPRK as a nuclear power and draw it into negotiating with North Korea as such.


 The Obama administration has so far dealt with North Korea with “strategic patience.” In light of this nuclear test, there is likely to be growing opinion in the U.S. that “Obama’s strategy was wrong and there needs to be a strategic review premised on North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons.”


 The test will have a serious impact on Northeast Asia. ROK President Park Geun-hye has only two more years in office. She had tried very hard to improve relations with Pyongyang, but she has been disappointed. It will be difficult to deepen inter-Korean relations with North Korea openly brandishing its nuclear arms. The same is true with the Japan-DPRK relationship. Japan was prepared to improve relations if progress was made in the reinvestigation of the abduction cases. Now that North Korea not only possesses nuclear weapons but has also conducted a hydrogen bomb test, it will be difficult for Japan to accept negotiations.


 China will be facing difficult decisions. If it imposes additional sanctions, North Korea will react very strongly and further escalate its provocations. Military tension may rise on the Korean peninsula depending on the U.S.’s response.


 This nuclear test has not only heightened tension in Northeast Asia. I am concerned that there may be a potential increase in the forces in favor of possessing nuclear capability both in the ROK and Japan. Unless this issue is dealt with promptly, it may come to bring about a dramatic change in the Northeast Asian security environment. (Interviewer: Hirohiko Kumamoto)

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