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What's Kim Jong Un's intention with the nuclear test?

By Joo Sung Ha, Special to CNN
February 15, 2013 -- Updated 1102 GMT (1902 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • North Korea enjoys international community chatter about its nuclear program
  • Dates of nuclear test and rocket launch have significance, writes Joo Sung Ha
  • Joo works as a newspaper journalist and came from North Korea

Editor's note: Joo Sung Ha is a Seoul-based journalist for Donga Ilbo, a newspaper in South Korea. He graduated from North Korea's Kim Il Sung University and trained as a reservist artillery officer. He has been imprisoned in China and North Korea. This piece was submitted in Korean and has been translated.

(CNN) -- On Tuesday, the international community reacted to North Korea's third nuclear test by calling its action "provocative," while South Korea's foreign minister warned that it was a "clear threat to international peace and security."

It was what Kim Jong Un, the nation's young leader, wanted.

From the North Korean government's view, the more pressure the international community places on its nuclear testing, the better. They enjoy the chatter among the world's leaders and at the U.N. about how North Korea's nuclear program must be stopped at all cost.

Joo Sung Ha defected from North Korea and is a journalist based in Seoul.
Joo Sung Ha defected from North Korea and is a journalist based in Seoul.

On January 23, the North Korean foreign ministry notified that they intended to carry out a test. They also sent photos of Kim Jong Un holding a meeting with senior officials.

If Kim had not acted by going through with the underground blast, it would have appeared that he had succumbed to pressure from the international community. In North Korea the authority of the "king" in the dynasty system cannot be compromised.

The date of the nuclear test -- conducted on February 12 -- is also significant, as it fell just days short of the 71st birthday of Kim's late father, Kim Jong Il, on February 16. Many North Korean events are associated with symbolic dates for the Kim family. On December 12, just days before the first anniversary of Kim Jong II's death, Pyongyang launched its first rocket into orbit -- despite international uproar.

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North Korea has staked its pride on these events. Saving face is more important than international sanctions, even if hundreds of thousands of ordinary North Koreans have died of hunger.

Even so, I cannot say the motivation behind North Korea's nuclear test is for Kim's pride alone. It also sends a message to its people that "Kim Jong Un leads the world."

Even with the nuclear test, the government knows that war will not arise. But to its people, it can give the impression that war is impending.

Inheriting his father's position at such a young age -- he's believed to be in his 20s -- many in North Korea may question whether Kim has the clout to lead. But through this test, Kim wanted to send a strong message domestically that he is in charge.

What happens if they do develop an effective nuclear weapon? Does North Korea intend to attack the United States? That is impossible. If North Korea attacks, it will be sent back to the Stone Ages -- the leadership in Pyongyang is well aware of that.

Does this point to an eventual attack on South Korea then? South Korea is protected by a nuclear umbrella -- meaning that the United States will protect it. In return for Seoul limiting its own nuclear weapons capability, Washington offers its protection. If North Korea attacks South Korea, it's effectively an attack on the United States.

Another major reason why North Korea is developing a nuclear capability is that its conventional military is dated and there are doubts about whether it can defend itself. While North Korea has an estimated 1.2 million soldiers, making it the third largest military behind China and United States, this is only a number.

It may be hard to believe but for almost 20 years, there have been continued food shortages in the military, to the extent that as many as 20% to 30% of the armed forces have actually disappeared -- with many deserting their post by way of a bribe to their superiors. Those that do remain in service are often involved in petty crime to get by, such as stealing from the civilian population.

North Korea requires military service for 10 years. During those years, most are discharged without even having fired 30 bullets. Without sufficient fuel for planes, airborne troops have not had much training. In 1990, I stood guard at a post in Pyongyang. The anti-aircraft weapon I used was a 1940s era model from the Soviet Union.

If war is to occur, North Korea could not stand, even for days, and it is well aware of that. But could it count on traditional ally, China, for support?

Starting from Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, the North Korean regime has never fully trusted China. The message that China is a nation that could strike North Korea at the "back of the head" has been passed down over the years to Kim Jong Un, his grandson. Since North Korea cannot count on Beijing fully, it has turned to the nuclear option as a deterrent.

North Korea would not risk a pre-emptive attack on the South, but the Kim dynasty now believes it has a card to protect itself, which is its main objective. For this reason, even if millions of people starve to death in the effects of the harsh sanctions, North Korea will keep trying to develop its own nuclear capabilities.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joo Sung Ha.

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