North Korea set on third nuclear test
By Sunny Lee
BEIJING - Old habits die hard. North Korea's predilection to resort to
provocation to seek attention, receive concessions, then behave for a while
before getting up to its usual tricks is likely to continue this year.
That will be particularly so since the much-trumpeted summit between Chinese
President Hu Jintao and United States President Barack Obama that ended on
Friday didn't yield anything substantive on North Korea.
"Judging by the joint statement, there's nothing that suggests more was
achieved in their meeting," said David Straub, a former
senior foreign service officer at the US State Department in charge of Korea
who now serves as the associate director of the Korean Studies Program at
John Delury, senior fellow at the Asia Society, a New York-based think-tank
that focuses on Asia affairs, agreed. "There was no announcement of the
resumption of the six-party talks," contrary to some expectations. "Nothing
dramatic, only tentative."
On Thursday, South Korea made the appearance of accepting a North Korean
proposal to hold high-level defense talks. Analysts view it more as the result
of prodding from the United States and China, which urged the two Koreas to
Yet, South Korea is not ready to engage North Korea, not after suffering two
attacks from North Korea last year, one including the sinking of the corvette Cheonan
that left 46 sailors dead and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in
which South Korean civilians were among the victims.
"So far, South Korea's stance is adamant," said Suh Choo-suk, who teaches at
Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.
Seoul demands North Korea show "sincerity" of its will for denuclearization
first before any major talks can proceed. But the North is on a different page
as it doesn't see the South as the concerned "party" for that issue. North
Korea has maintained its nuclear programs must be negotiated directly with the
United States because it developing nuclear weapons serves as a deterrent to
what it calls America's "hostile policy".
Since the start of the year, North Korea has been mounting a peace offensive.
"If Seoul and Washington don't reciprocate the North's reconciliatory move,
specifically, if the six-party talks don't resume any time soon and if the US
doesn't engage the North through direct talks, North Korea is likely to go
ahead with a nuclear testing," said Suh in Seoul.
"The possibility [for North Korea's nuclear testing] is always there," said Jin
Canrong, an international relations expert at Renmin University in Beijing. "It
wants to get more attention from the US. It also wants to get out from extreme
Another nuclear testing by North Korea is something that has been speculated
for quite a while - some observers see it not as a matter of "whether or not",
The much-awaited six-party talks, even if they resume, are not guaranteed to
put a stop to any ambitions either. "North Korea conducted one test even when
the [last round of] six-party talks was underway," Delury said.
Analysts widely believe North Korea is likely to carry out nuclear testing
irrespective of its improved relations with the US and South Korea, because
nuclear weapons under development require repeated testing to check progress
and enhance their prowess.
Another reason North Korea is likely to settle for nuclear testing rather than
armed provocations against its usual punch bag, South Korea, is that South
Korean citizens' feelings toward their errant brothers have dramatically
In a poll conducted at the end of last year by Research Plus, a public survey
group in Seoul, the change was obvious even among South Korean college students
who tend to be more liberal and idealistic toward North Korea than the older
generation. The percentage of the South's college students who perceived North
Korea as a "partner for cooperation" was 45% in 2004 and 46% in 2007, but
plummeted to 29% in the latest poll.
That tells something to North Korea. In the past, North Korea mounted
provocations with the premise that South Korea wouldn't be able to respond
militarily, fearing tremendous economic damage in industrial South Korea. But
North Korea cannot trust that premise any more as it sees that South Koreans
are willing to go ahead with planned military drills despite calls for
restraint from China and Russia.
After suffering repeated North Korean provocations, the South Korean public is
also beginning to demand that their government stand up to North Korea. South
Korea has gone a step further by showing its resolve to respond militarily to
the North's provocations. "Now, South Koreans are ready to fight. So North
Korea is more cautious to provoke the South. They don't want to target South
Korea. So, the other option is a nuclear or missile test," said Jin at Renmin
University in Beijing.
Suh in Seoul agrees: "The kind of provocation North Korea did on Yeongpyong
Island is risky on the part of North Korea too. So they want to target the US
by carrying out a third nuclear testing or test-firing a long-range missile."
Straub believes that the timing of North Korea's nuclear testing will be
decided by Pyongyang to use it as pressure on the US and South Korea to "reset
the strategic chess board", for example, "to have negotiations but to have them
on their terms".
Importantly, China's influence on North Korea will be tested. Beijing has
repeatedly expressed its position against the North's nuclear testing.
Pyongyang's going ahead with a nuclear testing would be a slap in the face to
"If North Korea wants to do it, it has to think about China's attitude. China's
attitude is crucial whether there will be another nuclear test by North Korea.
China will never give open support for its nuclear test," said Yu Yingli, a
North Korea expert at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.
Yet, Yu admits China's influence on North Korea is limited. "North Korea is a
nation that doesn't follow another country's orders. It always does what it
wants to do, not what China wants it to do," she said, adding, "It will hurt
China's feelings. North Korea has to think about it."
Undoubtedly, North Korean leaders, in making a decision on a third unclear
test, will think about China's reaction in terms of what dates for testing and
public statements would cause the least offense to China, according to Straub,
the former US State Department official. "North Koreans at least will try to
create a circumstance that appears to force them to go with the nuclear
Sunny Lee (email@example.com) is a Seoul-born columnist
and journalist; he has degrees from the US and China.