If there was any hope that new leadership in Pyongyang presaged an end to North Korea’s indifference to the welfare of its people and world opinion, it ended with a seismic thud Tuesday, when that nation conducted its third underground nuclear test.
The test was the first under new ruler Kim Jong Un, who, despite a smattering of Western education, seems more and more in the belligerent and hermetic mold of his father and grandfather, the Kim family being the only rulers North Korea has ever known.
President Barack Obama said the test would only increase North Korea’s isolation and impoverishment. The U.N. Security Council convened an emergency session to denounce the test as “a clear threat to international peace and security” and made a vague pledge of further action against the regime.
There was once a U.S. advertising slogan, “What do you get the man who has everything?” North Korea poses the reverse of that question: “What to you do to the nation that has virtually nothing?”
The regime is unfazed by the regular episodes of mass starvation that afflict its people. It seems intent only on developing nuclear weapons and the rockets to deliver them, a program that has been a mixed success at best.
If Kim’s regime has one weakness, it’s that it can’t stand to be ignored. Late last year, perhaps thinking the U.S. was far too preoccupied with the Mideast and North Africa, it made a series of direct threats to “target” the U.S. That might have been alarming if North Korea had been remotely capable of carrying them out.
But it would be a mistake to underestimate the country’s determination to have a credible nuclear threat.
At one time, North Korea could blackmail the developed nations to provide food and fuel in return for promises – ultimately empty – that it would mothball its nuclear-weapons program.
China is Pyongyang’s closest ally, or at least the nation least hostile to it. Here again, North Korea’s poverty is one of its best defenses. Beijing fears – correctly, no doubt – that any turmoil, like regime change, would send hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees flooding across the Chinese border.
China specifically warned North Korea not to conduct the test. China’s state-run Global Times newspaper said North Korea must “pay a heavy price” if it did. China should proceed quickly and decisively to exact that price.