North Korea’s decision to carry out its second nuclear test, just a month since it fired a ballistic missile over Japan, comes despite numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions warning it against such action. While some new international sanctions can be expected, they are unlikely to have much impact against a country whose ruling dictator, Kim Jong-Il, has already cut off almost all links with the outside world. Such is the randomness of North Korean behaviour that the test had little or no effect on Asian stock markets.
It is important that India supports the international community in any action that it may take against Pyongyang. New Delhi must always go the extra mile to differentiate its own nuclear actions, done without violating international law, from those of maverick states like North Korea or Pakistan. North-east Asian analysts have even argued Pyongyang’s strategy is to mimic India’s nuclear history with the eventual goal of becoming a legitimate nuclear power. The only favour India owes North Korea is the arsenal of ballistic missiles that Pakistan today aims at India. North Korea’s actions have always been in equal parts opacity, peril and bizarreness. The most interesting explanation for the test is that Kim Jong-Il, who suffered a stroke in August, is preparing the grounds for a succession struggle. Showing an aggressive external front would be a warning to the outside world to keep away. A simpler view is that Pyongyang is preparing the grounds, in its strange and distinctive way, for negotiations with the new Barack Obama administration over the future of its nuclear programme. If so, North Korea may be taking a step too far.
The test is a slap in the face for Mr Obama and his non-proliferation agenda. The six-party talks that provide the diplomatic framework to discuss North Korea are beginning to fray at the side. The danger is that the world will be looking for ways to respond to a North Korea that seems intent on provocation and posturing rather than constructive diplomacy. By definition, some of these options will be in the military arena and none is likely to include a lifting of sanctions.