The nuclear test conducted by North Korea is not exactly a surprise. Having been there and done that in 2006 and 2009, North Korea was hardly bashful the third time around. In fact, it had no qualms in preceding the current round of tests with specious warnings that were meant especially for the ears of the United States of America, whose “hostility” during North Korea’s recent launch of an “artificial satellite” is alleged to have prompted its latest action. That the international community meanwhile could do nothing but wring its hands is just an indication of how little has been achieved by way of either diplomacy or sanctions in deterring nations from going nuclear. The more the desperation to stop a country from developing its nuclear capability, the more its inclination to go that way. Like Iran, North Korea too seems to have decided to bank entirely on its nuclear muscle to steer its course in international diplomacy. This is not a new strategy since nuclear capability has been part and parcel of the ruling dynasty’s principle of Juche or self-reliance. If the new North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, has fallen back on it despite his apparent enthusiasm to return to the negotiation table, it is perhaps because he has learnt that without the nuclear trump card, he could never hope to swing the deal his way. The fall of Muammar Gaddafi, who let go of this card, and the survival of Syria’s ruling family, which has deftly calibrated its use, could have been valuable experiences for Mr Kim, who has proved to be a fast learner. Apart from sustaining North Korea’s advantage in diplomacy, nuclear muscle-flexing also adds to the young ruler’s charisma besides guaranteeing the country a sure-fire way to sustain its economy through a covert trade in nuclear arms.
The last possibility has become a gnawing worry for the international powers, given North Korea’s latest drive for miniature nuclear devices. They could push more sanctions down North Korea’s throat, as they have done for Iran. But if Iran is any indicator, sustained negotiations could prove more worthwhile, no matter how badly behaved North Korea is. The other essential part of this policy of strategic patience is to get China to actually work on the threats it has been making to North Korea.