Editor’s Note: Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds (United Kingdom) and the editor of Sino-NK.com. The views in this article are those of the author.
Cathcart: As Kim Jong Un looks at the world today, he may feel stronger than ever
The new tests flag North Korea as a major challenge for US foreign policy, says Cathcart
North Korea has carried out its fifth nuclear test, and Kim Jong Un is smiling.
After a breathtaking run of missile and nuclear tests this year, the North Korean leader is now promising miniaturized warheads.
With the country’s nuclear potential seemingly realer than ever, Pyongyang television sets are relentlessly beaming out the image of their Supreme Leader’s grinning visage.
There’s no escaping the fact that Kim Jong Un’s North Korea presents a complex challenge to a fragmenting world.
Why did the test happen now? What is North Korea hoping to get out of it?
While there is a huge amount of bluster and untruth spun out of Pyongyang, sometimes when North Korean state organs talk, they mean precisely what they say.
We can scoff when they call their nuclear program a “treasured sword,” but increasingly they are making the point that their nukes are not for bartering.
Kim Jong Un has not and probably does not want to engage in talks on denuclearization: he wants North Korea to be recognized as a nuclear state.
Because the peninsula is still technically in a state of war, there are a host of goals he might potentially have. These could range from the cessation of US-South Korean joint military exercises in and around the peninsula, to a peace treaty that would move American forces off of the peninsula altogether.
He also might wish to demonstrate to everyone around him – both in his own country and in the region – that he is a strong leader who can intimidate the United States, the country which every North Korean is told to hate from birth.
Nuclear weapons are also a powerful tool in demonstrating Pyongyang’s asymmetric ability to stand up to the existential challenge it faces from its rival, the wealthy, US-aligned Korean republic to its south.
Since 2006, North Korea had been testing its nuclear weapons at roughly three-year intervals. But this new test follows only nine months on the heels of the last – why? The accelerated timing of the tests is probably a combination of scientific and political expediency.
Kim Jong Un is eager to present the incoming US administration with a finished and multi-faceted nuclear threat.
Yet, in spite of a flurry of missile tests, including a crucial launch from a nuclear-capable submarine last month, North Korea has not made major inroads into the American presidential campaign as an issue.
This is perhaps not surprising, with ongoing crises in Syria, the UK’s slow but ugly divorce from Europe, Hillary’s e-mail history and Trump’s focus on Mexico and trade.
The new tests flag North Korea as a major challenge for US foreign policy, encouraging foreign policy advisors to both Trump and Clinton campaigns to either rethink or raise the prominence of North Korea as an issue.
Trump earlier embraced the unorthodox possibility of employing a ‘Dennis Rodman strategy ‘of personal diplomacy, suggesting he could throw down in person with Kim Jong Un.
The Clinton campaign has loads more experience in dealing with North Korea – as Bill Clinton’s 2009 trip there to spring two noteworthy hostages suggests.
But Hillary has problems here due to her overall alignment with the Obama administration’s policy on North Korea, which is charitably called “strategic patience”– the application of sanctions on North Korea and working as closely as possible with China on the issue.
Apart from a flight by James Clapper to spring another hostage and some back-channel discussions in Singapore, Berlin, and Sweden, this strategy has gone nowhere, and the missiles and nuke tests are piling up.
Kim Jong Un also recognizes that there are huge fractures opening up between the US and China both in the South China Sea and also with respect to anti-missile defenses proposed for South Korea. While they helped the US in early 2016, today officials in Beijing are in no mood to go along with Washington in crushing North Korea’s nuclear program.
For supposedly being ignorant of the outside world, the North Korean leadership is fairly astute when it comes to timing the tests. This new test should inject fresh momentum behind North Korea as a campaign issue, regardless of what NBC anchor Matt Lauer did or didn’t ask the candidates.
It’s becoming apparent from its actions that North Korea wants not to negotiate its nukes away, but to have them recognized, and to look forward to victory – which it might define as relaxation of US conventional and nuclear military pressure on it.
How far Kim will go between now and the US Presidential inauguration will depend as much on resources as it will on his own whims.
Like the US or the Soviet Union in the late 1940s, there is by no means an inexhaustible supply of nuclear bombs at his disposal. Kim Jong Un’s regime has shown a remarkable resilience in resisting sanctions, but there are limits, too, to the resources he can marshal from of Maoist-style Chollima campaigns or “loyalty contributions” from North Koreans making money overseas.
In the meantime, the North Korean people themselves must be exhausted after what is often backbreaking manual labor to feed their country’s nuclear weapons progress. Political culture and the dictatorship in Pyongyang require that they smile as they work.
As Kim Jong Un looks out at the world today, he may very well feel stronger than ever.