Internationally operated detectors based in South Korea picked up a magnitude 5 tremor in the earth on Monday which appears to have been caused by a small nuclear device detonated on the northern side of the tense 38th parallel.
The North Koreans issued warnings of a possible test for several weeks beforehand but the event has nevertheless stirred worried activity in South Korea and Japan, and caught observer nations off guard. Which is probably what Pyongyang intended.
There are two things for certain in North Korea: that they will continue a well-rehearsed charade of appearing unpredictable by launching missiles and detonating crude nuclear devices, and that when they do the West will predictably sit up, take notice, and “strongly condemn” them.
After the latest test, which appears to be larger than the previous two, the United Nations issued another toothless response denouncing the North Korean belligerency.
South Korea, Japan, and China each have new leaders this year so the hermetic North Korea’s will provide useful litmus tests for the fresh heads of state.
It is hard to know what to meaningfully do about such provocations as there is a fine line between too little pressure and too much on the Korean peninsula.
A real 'nuclear option'
The North Koreans are extremely adept at playing the role of the rogue state but never push their actions far enough to risk outright military intervention. Bringing war to the region would probably prove destructive for both Koreas.
The United States and South Korea have invested vast sums of money to ensure the safety of the more docile south. Thousands of US troops are permanently stationed in bases close to Seoul and the Demilitarised Zone, and American warships make regular visits.
However, the fact remains that North Korea’s real "nuclear option" is actually their conventional armed forces. Satellite imagery over the so-called “Demilitarised Zone” has revealed one of the most heavily weaponised regions on the globe.
With their conventional assets only, it has been conservatively estimated that any conflict with the North would result in almost complete destruction of Seoul. The two Koreas are still officially at war, but apart from the occasional belligerent salvo from the North, hostilities have not been triggered in decades.
North Korea’s strategy for survival is complex but depends on one key aspect. It may appear a weak state with few resources, and their unpredictablity is certainly a practised manoeuvre, but threatening the world with nuclear weapons is probably not the hand-wringing danger it may first appear.
The nuclear weapons threat is very dangerous and clearly real. Crude or not, they ensure the international community always returns to the negotiating table.
But there is an important difference between detonating a nuclear device and actually having the capability to deliver it to a target. Just blowing up a few bombs underground does not mean the North Koreans can level Seoul or place a device on Toyko or Los Angeles.
The December 2012 launch of a satellite by Pyongyang may indicate advancing intercontinental ballistic missile technology suitable for arming with a nuclear device. Yet the rocket test itself was messy and the satellite soon fell out of orbit.
So even if the North possesses a reliable nuclear weapon – a dubious claim no matter how many officials try to confirm otherwise – mounting it onto an equally unreliable rocket system would be a risky move not even the regime would be likely to make.
It is the long and twisting process of attaining a capable nuclear device that is Pyongyang’s real goal.
Pyongyang's intelligent strategy
If North Korea truly did have a deliverable nuclear weapon, then the rhetoric from the West would be much more vitriolic and hawkish than it is. Removing the threat would be a very high priority, and military means would definitely be on the table.
Such a device would provide the perfect cassus belli to resolve the problem once and for all. Obviously, this would not be good for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his government.
Pyongyang would much prefer to continue getting the constant flow of aid from Western nations which try to convince the rogue regime with food and money to halt its dangerous quest for nuclear weapons.
So far, this deft geopolitical dance has tamed the far more powerful Western nations, convincing them to treat North Korea as an equal on the world stage.
Why would Pyongyang want to give up such prestige by taking the foolish step of creating a deliverable and reliable nuclear weapon that would only encourage attack?
Right now, the stages of the lengthy nuclear development path are much more lucrative and politically stabilising than actually having a ready-to-launch weapon.
Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict
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