For weeks before President Obama’s visit to Seoul in April 2014 there were a series of reports, spurred by deliberate North Korean announcements, about an impending nuclear test. It has not happened so far, nor any missile test for that matter, which marked the previous three nuclear tests by Pyongyang in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
Commercial satellite imagery from the test site at Punggye-ri, in North Korea where previous tests were done has indicated confusing activity over the past month; activity which arouses concern about an imminent test alongside doubts too whether diggings and tunnels apart, other non test-related activity should be on if they were about to do a test. In the wake of reports and analyses of satellite imagery in the website ‘38 North’, the CTBTO was also reported to have commented last week that “There is activity at both tunnel entrances in the South Portal area, although less than in previous imagery…The May 9 imagery indicates activity in other areas at the site as well, but none seems to show a test is ‘imminent’.…..If a test were imminent, there would be a high level of activity, special vans used for secure communications and other vehicles spotted in the past that were unidentified but may have been somehow related to the nuclear device.”
On the political side the reports from Washington indicated some revival of interest in reactivating the six party process that has lain dormant since 2008. Ambassador Glyn Davis, the point person in the Obama administration, said that he was in touch with the four parties; namely, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, even though he discounted the raising of any expectations. There is a general sense among Korea watchers that Pyongyang is unlikely to heed advice on denuclearisation and flout sanctions as it may consider its previous tests and the time lapsed since the suspension of the six party talks as a fact of life as far as its nuclear status is concerned. Statements from North Korean officials allude to this by saying, in the midst of much vituperation about US and South Korea, that its nuclear weapons are for defensive deterrence.
Voices from China have revealed mixed signals. First, a Professor at the China Institute of International Affairs, Yang Xiyu, averred on 5 May 2014 that North Korea will conduct another test for both technical and political reasons. He assessed that there could be no stopping at a fourth test and DPRK could do a fifth and a sixth test too in due course. A Chinese military expert, Peng Guangqian, dismissed this as speculation spawned by the news media. However, a more official Chinese comment has been attributed to Professor Shi Yinhong, at the People’s University in Beijing, asserting that “If the DPRK should indeed conduct another nuclear test, China will definitely be prepared to play a leading role in joining other nations to endorse another UN Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on the DPRK in a collective international manner,” as quoted in The Washington Times of 8 May 2014. Shi also cautioned during aninterview to a TV channel Phoenix TV that China “is prepared to impose unilateral sanctions on North Korea if actions by Pyongyang undermine stability on the peninsula.”
If the Chinese official position is nuanced to apply pressure on DPRK against further tests, what can possibly be read in to it? If the US Administration were somehow resigned to the present stalemate about denuclearising the Korean peninsula and if Pyongyang felt it could go on with missile and nuclear tests perhaps the Chinese would sit up and review what it means. Given that the US policy of rebalancing in the Asia Pacific may entail optimisation of its energies and burden, could it be that the US might let the other powers too, which could influence North Korea, realise the dangers inherent in and share some burden about North Korea’s complete lack of restraint? As China may strategise for an assertive Japan in the coming years and explore common causes with South Korea, it may feel less detached from US concerns about outlaw North Korea; particularly since a nuclear peninsula would scarcely be in China’s long-term interest. So far, China’s line has been to hold US responsible and implore it, as well as Seoul and Tokyo, to engage and persevere with a diplomatic process which China has facilitated in the past. But all of them ought to pay heed to Pyongyang’s security anxiety. If, however, China’s unrestrained neighbour ventures too far and provides ground for even greater US military involvement with South Korea and Japanthat should be a cause for worry.
Would a fourth nuclear test – and by now a customary missile test in tow - take North Korean defiance to unacceptable escalation? Is this why pressure may now be coming from Beijing to call a halt? If so, this may spur some dialogue, at least preparatory, towards activation of the six party process. At a long shot, the changing outlook in Tokyo about defence and security under Prime Minister Abe should perhaps inspire its neighbour to revalue the strategic point of non-proliferation.