Following North Korea’s third nuclear test, South Korea, Japan, and China will be compelled to match their verbal condemnations with action. Several responses could further provoke Pyongyang, causing it to lash out again, and destabilise the region. Should Beijing decide to punish North Korea over its latest provocation – by supporting an extension and practical implementation of the relevant UN Security Council sanctions list, for instance – Pyongyang may feel forcefully backed into a corner by its only major ally. This could spark fresh belligerence from the North, eager to demonstrate it cannot be externally constrained. Beijing’s cooperation is essential in denying Pyongyang the ability to proliferate weapons technology to others. Similarly, if South Korea and Japan partner more closely with the US on ballistic missile defence, regional security dynamics may become further strained.
Andrea Berger is research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
The third nuclear test by North Korea will not destabilise the region: Pyongyang had promised to respond to toughened UN sanctions triggered by its earlier ballistic missile launch back in December. North Korea believes it can only survive by showing strength. However, the apparent low yield of the test, suggesting a partial fizzle, makes it unlikely that we will see North Korean bombs fitted on missiles anytime soon. And North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-Un, has refrained from criticising South Korea, as he seeks better relations with the US in order to achieve full diplomatic recognition. China and South Korea are now in a dilemma over how to respond: China’s immediate response, beyond strong words of displeasure, urged “calm”, while inviting responses to the six-party talks – which haven’t taken place in four years.
Francois Godemont is China and Asia programme director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.