Peace hopes fade after North Korea’s latest nuclear test
NEW Year’s Day 2013 was a rare moment of hope for observers of North Korea. That was when the country’s leadership intimated that it wanted to pull back from the cycles of dangerous nuclear brinkmanship.
That hope had been returned to Pandora’s Box by February 12 - the day North Korea carried out its third nuclear test.
North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, had called for an end to confrontation between the two Koreas in his New Year speech.
The last war, 60 years ago, cost three million lives and - with only an armistice agreed in 1953 - a technical state of war still exists between the North, the South and its United States ally.
Kim Jong-Un’s remarks have suggested that North Korea, with its population of 24 million people, might be about to experience a Camelot moment.
He seemed to recognise that a rare opportunity for change had presented itself.
North Korea’s change of leadership is matched by China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, and Park Geun-hye as the new President of South Korea.
In South Korea the newly-elected Miss Park, has been creating the right mood and calling for deeper engagement.
She said: ’While we cannot allow the North to develop nuclear weapons …we must keep open the possibility of dialogue, including humanitarian aid.’
But, after a third nuclear test - previous ones were in 2006 and 2009 - and North Korea in the news for all the wrong reasons, it is all the more disappointing that these brief encounters have been so quickly replaced by aggressive posturing.
Kim Jong-Un has squandered an opportunity and even managed to alienate China and Russia. North Korea has blown away prospects of a peaceful way forward by whipping up anti-American sentiment and using that, and constant warnings of US hostility, as a pretext for its actions.
North Korea has massively raised the stakes by developing long-range technologies which would have the capacity to strike the United States and by moving on from plutonium to enriched uranium.
This move has the potential to plunge the region into a destabilising and dangerous nuclear arms race. After North Korea’s launch of a rocket in December 2012, Russia warned North Korea that there would be consequences. Unsurprisingly, after this third nuclear test, Russia and, even more crucially, China, both supported unanimous Security Council votes of censure.
The talk now is of further economic sanctions.
But it is China which holds the keys. China has recently agreed two new joint economic zones with North Korea. The question remains will these go ahead or will China turn off its energy supplies, curtail trade and freeze assets?
North Korea, with a million men under arms, is one of the most militarised countries on earth. It has the world’s fourth largest army and biggest Special Forces, and its arsenal includes the full array of weapons of mass destruction. These include a plutonium-based nuclear weapons programme now supplemented by uranium enrichment, the world’s third largest chemical weapons arsenal, possibly biological weapons and a range of ballistic missiles.
If China does not use all its diplomatic might to force North Korea to hammer out a long-term political settlement it risks a conflict triggered by a ‘Sarajevo Moment’, repeating the horrendous loss of life experienced between 1950 and 1953.
A Sarajevo Moment was closer than we might imagine in 2010 with the sinking of the South Korean ship, the Cheonan by a North Korean submarine and the disputed border shelling between North and South Korean forces in the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island.
Moments like these underline North Korea’s capacity to initiate hostility and, in the cyber domain, interference with GPS systems of planes using Seoul’s busy airports in South Korea, all indicate their ability to inflict harm, short of invasion.
North Korea’s people starve to death and face malnutrition while pouring precious resources into a nuclear arms race which risks destabilising the whole region.