Pyongyang poker: N. Korea ups the ante with the U.S., Japan, S. Korea and China

John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Shortly after the Security Council unanimously condemned the recent North Korean missile launch and demanded that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea abandon nuclear testing, Pyongyang’s rulers decided to up the political ante. They announced that they are on the verge of a third nuclear test and for good measure, threatened that both their missile and nuclear technology is aimed at the United States!

While the North Korean communists do not shy from hurling political bombast and backing their threats with the occasional pyrotechnic show, the timing of this entire sequence is set to probe the reactions of key neighboring governments in a game of high-stakes poker.

Kim Jong-Un with soldiers of the Seoul Ryu Kyong Su 105 Guards Tank Division of the Korean People’s Army. /AFP

The December intercontinental ballistic missile test came at the sensitive time of elections in both South Korea and Japan. Equally, the period mirrored the new leadership transition in Mainland China as well as the aftermath of the American presidential elections. Thus while North Korea is testing missiles, Pyongyang’s secretive political leadership is taking the regional pulse and most especially reactions.

The most recent UN Security Council resolution was noteworthy. Sponsored by the United States, it gained the support of all fifteen Council members, most especially and importantly People’s China and Russia. Significantly South Korea, who just joined the Council for a two year term, predictably backed the action which as mentioned both condemns the missile launches and demands that the DPRK “Abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.”

The resolution also calls for an end to further launches “that use ballistic missile technology, nuclear tests or any other further provocation, ” and slaps some additional sanctions on North Korean technology firms as well as banks who have had dealing with financial institutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Now to the regional angle. In presidential elections, South Korea voters elected a new conservative government of Ms. Park Geun-Hye. While Park, the daughter of the late 1960’s-70’s strongman President Park Chung-Hee, remains an unapologetic nationalist who pines for peaceful reunification of the divided peninsula, she is above all a steely realist not prone to pander to Pyongyang’s dictates.

With her inauguration in Seoul is planned for February 25th , there’s rife speculation as to whether she may wish to test the frozen political waters between both Korean governments. Would a nuclear test derail any diplomatic dialogue and humanitarian thaw between both states?

Interestingly, in a New Year’s address, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un stated that his regime is open to inter-Korean re-engagement, urging that “the great national cause of reunifying the country…by holding fast to the ideals of independence, peace and friendship.”

Then there’s Japan. Elections in December returned the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to power in a political landslide. The new nationalist but pro-American Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is focused first and foremost at revitalization of Japan’s sluggish economy.

Equally Tokyo is embroiled with Beijing in dangerous territorial rift over the disputed Senkaku or Daoyutai islands in the East China Sea. Prime Minister Abe is forced to deal with North Korea’s provocations which are dangerously close to Japan, and let’s face it, could have Japan as a target.

China too is nervous over its erstwhile comrades in the quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Though Beijing has ideologically offered lip service to the Pyongyang regime, China’s trade and commerce is overwhelmingly with prosperous capitalist South Korea.

The North Korean nuclear antics are a dangerous reminder of instability on Mainland China’s doorstep.

While Beijing regularly urges the DPRK rulers to show restraint, the fact is that North Korea sees a nuclear option as getting Korea out of the traditional “big brother” shadow of China as much as it presumably makes Pyongyang an independent political player.

This is one reason that Beijing, along with Washington supports a resumption of the multilateral but moribund Six Party Talks which bring together all the regional players; South and North Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the USA into a diplomatic process aimed at DPRK denuclearization.

And what about the USA, treaty bound to defend South Korea? President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech spelled out painfully little about foreign and security policy. Yet as the President stated, “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully. Not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”

While such admirable sentiments would work well in a model UN setting, somehow I feel Kim Jong-Un’s Korea misses the point and is searching for signs of weakness and strategic indifference. Clearly South Korea, Japan, China and the USA are being tested by Pyongyang’s pugnacious probes. Will they call North Korea’s bluff?

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for