The apparently successful North Korean nuclear test is bound to ratchet up global tensions. Ignoring repeated warnings, including an October 3 resolution of the UN Security Council, Pyongyang reportedly conducted an underground nuclear test on Monday, becoming the eighth country to officially test atomic weapons. Pyongyang’s claims will undoubtedly be verified by the extensive monitoring system around the region. Even then, it will not be easy to determine if the North Koreans could fabricate the device into a weapon and fit it atop its missiles. Not that it really matters, since the biggest fear about North Korea has less to do with its offensive capabilities than its potential to proliferate weapons of mass destruction.
Pyongyang never made any bones about selling missiles and other weapons to Iran, Syria and Pakistan, with its representatives at the six-party talks sometimes even threatening to sell nuclear weapons. North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, and later announced that it had acquired nuclear weapons. The test has raised a huge question mark over the world nuclear order as defined by the NPT. The negotiations involving North Korea, South Korea, Russia, Japan and the US have been stalled for more than a year now. It is likely that South Korea, Japan and China will interpret the test as more than an attempt to force the international community, especially the US, to make concessions in talks.
Other than the US nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan, China is the only other nuclear-armed State in East Asia. Beijing would prefer North Korea to remain moderately powerful, able to deter attacks, but not strong enough to limit China’s own ability to forcefully negotiate with it. Which could explain its participation in negotiations. Though, if forced to make a choice, Beijing will prefer to keep the US away from its Korean border, even if that means a strengthened North Korea. In a sense the test proves this. The Kim Jong-Il regime — ever fearful of Western efforts to topple it — obviously prefers political brinkmanship to any other kind of diplomacy. The challenge before the world community is to see just how it will get this genie back into the bottle.