North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un starts 2016 with a bang

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Not one week into the New Year, the North Koreans jolted global concerns as well as the Richter scale with a nuclear weapons test.

While the underground blast shook the remote Punggye-ri region near the Russian border, the political reverberations of the bomb have been felt from East Asia to the United Nations on the East River. Only days after North Korean’s unpredictable dictator, Kim Jong-Un, delivered a fairly conciliatory New Year’s message, the leader then gave the orders for what was deemed to be a Hydrogen Bomb test.

Seoul’s respected Korea Times opined, “Ever unpredictable, North Korea surprised the world again.” Putting it another way, with Pyongyang, expect the unexpected.

Whether the weapon was a Hydrogen or smaller nuclear weapon, the fact remains that the defiant “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)” has thrust itself into the headlines. The international community, most especially South Korea, Japan and the United States roundly condemned the move, as did even North Korea’s erstwhile ally the People’s Republic of China.

Elite North Koreans allowed to live in Pyongyang celebrate a “successful hydrogen bomb” test. / Kyodo, via AP
Elite North Koreans allowed to live in Pyongyang celebrate a “successful hydrogen bomb” test. / Kyodo, via AP

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, himself a South Korean, stated, “This act is profoundly destabilizing for regional security and seriously undermines international non-proliferation efforts. I condemn it unequivocally.” Ban demanded that the DPRK cease further nuclear activities.

The UN Security Council met in emergency session and “strongly condemned” the test which is in serious violation of a number of resolutions. Given the gravity of the situation, the Council will begin work on a new resolution which would likely tighten sanctions on the DPRK.

Importantly, as Japan has assumed its seat for a two year term, the Council may have extra impetus for serious sanctions action in response to Pyongyang’s recklessness. Japan’s UN Ambassador Motohide Yoshikawa, called for a swift and robust new UN resolution.

Even China “firmly opposes,” the latest nuclear test. While originally indulging and enabling its communist comrade, in recent years Beijing has become decidedly nervous about North Korea being a loose cannon.

Nuclear weapons tests are destabilizing and nowhere more so than to neighboring Mainland China where the economic downturn does not need a negative downdraft of unpredictability and crisis. Beijing knows this is bad for business and wider stability.

This is the fourth North Korean nuclear test since 2006; the DPRK holds the dubious distinction as being the only country to have tested nuclear weapons this century.

The DPRK’s bizarre Marxist Monarchy has taken a dangerous new turn; while the communist regime founder Great Leader Kim Il-Sung and his mercurial son Kim Jong-Il were thoroughly ruthless but predictable, to the contrary, Kim Jong-Un, who assumed leadership in 2012, appears far more reckless.

Back in May-June 1994 when the world faced the first major nuclear crisis with North Korea, the Clinton administration nearly came to war with the DPRK over Pyongyang’s proliferation policies. But by Autumn President Bill Clinton signed off on a Geneva Framework Agreement, a dubious diplomatic deal which allowed North Korea to presumably suspend its nuclear development in exchange for American aid and fuel supplies.

Needless to say, North Korea cheated on the deal.

For decades the DPRK rulers have pursued a policy of neutrons over nutrition for their own population. Ironically in the midst of this crisis, we tend to forget that North Korea still suffers from acute food shortages, remains a recipient of humanitarian aid from the United Nations and donor states.

Since 1995, the UN’s Word Food Programme has channeled significant humanitarian aid to the DPRK; even today about 2 million people, mostly women and children are receiving food aid. Current donors include Australia, Russia and South Korea.

So will the Security Council expand the sanctions? Possibly. But as Bruce Klinger, a former CIA analyst now at Washington’s Heritage Foundation states, “President Barack Obama’s assertion that North Korea is the most heavily sanctioned country in the world is simply not true.

The Obama Administration has not fully implemented U.S. laws and has targeted fewer North Korean entities than those of the Balkans, Burma, Cuba, Iran and Zimbabwe.”

Beyond sanctions, credible military deterrence is key. Under the terms of the U.S. /ROK Defense Treaty, Washington is firmly committed to the security of South Korea. Yet, the Obama Administration’s maladroit foreign policy may have given the perception of a policy vacuum in East Asia.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has one more year left in his tenure at the UN. As a South Korean, Ban must make his long anticipated visit to North Korea to defuse this crisis, make the case for peace, and secure his legacy. The clock is ticking.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).