SEOUL, South Korea — The way North Korea sees it, only bigger weapons and more threatening provocations will force Washington to come to the table to discuss what Pyongyang says it really wants: peace.
It’s no coincidence that North Korea’s third underground nuclear test — and by all indications so far its most powerful yet — took place Tuesday on the eve of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
As perplexing as the tactic may seem to the outside world, it serves as an attention-getting reminder to the world that North Korea may be poor but has the power to upset regional security and stability.
And the response to its latest provocation was immediate.
“The danger posed by North Korea’s threatening activities warrants further swift and credible action by the international community,” Obama said in a statement hours after the test. “The United States will also continue to take steps necessary to defend ourselves and our allies.” The United Nations, Japan and South Korea also responded with predictable anger. Even China, North Korea’s staunchest ally, summoned the North Korean ambassador to the Foreign Ministry for a rare dressing down.
All this puts young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his circle of advisers right where they want to be: at the center of controversy and the focus of foreign policy.
A year into his nascent leadership, he is referring to his father’s playbook to try forcing a change on North Korea policy in capital cities across the region — mostly notably in the U.S.
The intent in Pyongyang is to get Washington to treat North Korea like an equal, a fellow nuclear power. The aim of the nuclear and missile tests is not to go to war with the United States — notwithstanding its often belligerent statements — but to force Washington to respect its sovereignty and military clout.
During his 17-year rule, late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il poured scarce resources into Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs to use as bargaining chips in negotiations with Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. At the same time, he sought to build unity at home by pitching North Korea’s defiance as a matter of national pride as well as military defense.
North Korea has long cited the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula, and what it considers a nuclear umbrella in the region, as the main reason behind its need for nuclear weapons. North Korea and the U.S. fought on opposite sides of the bitter, three-year Korean War. That conflict ended in a truce in 1953, and left the peninsula divided by heavily fortified buffer zone manned by the U.S.-led U.N. Command.
Sixty years after the armistice, North Korea has pushed hard for a peace treaty with the U.S. But when talks fail, as they have for nearly two decades, the North Koreans turn to speaking with their weapons.
With each missile and nuclear test, experts say North Korea is getting closer to building the arsenal it feels it needs to challenge Washington to change what it considers a “hostile” policy toward the longtime foe.
In 2008, after years of negotiations led by China, North Korea agreed to stop producing plutonium and blew up its main reactor northwest of the capital.
But in 2009, just months after Obama took office for his first term, Pyongyang fired long-range rocket carrying a satellite, earning U.N. condemnation and sanctions that North Korea accused Washington of initiating. In protest, Pyongyang conducted its second nuclear test and revealed it had a second way to make atomic bombs: by enriching uranium.
With nuclear negotiations stalled, North Korea forged ahead making missiles designed to reach U.S. shores and worked toward building a bomb small enough to mount on it — less with an actual attack in mind but to brandish as a warning to the wartime foe.
In carefully choreographed North Korea, timing is everything, and February is proving to be a strategic month for a North Korea provocation.
China and Japan have new, largely untested leaders still in the process of formulating their government policies. A provocation during the last days of Lee Myung-bak presidency in Seoul gives Pyongyang the chance at one last jab at the conservative leader while leaving open the possibility of a new relationship with incoming President Park.
And it’s the start of Obama’s second term; his new secretary of state, John Kerry, took office just weeks ago.
The latest nuclear test also serves Kim Jong Un’s domestic purposes.
By showing his people he has the temerity to stand up to the bigger powers encircling the country, including China, the young leader is calculating that he will win support at home, even if it means costing the country much-needed trade and aid. He’s also showing old timers at home who back his father’s “military first” policy that he’s tough on national defense.
He’s also seeking to win the loyalty of the younger generation by characterizing the costly rockets and satellites as scientific advancements meant to build a better future.
Pyongyang is already warning that the nuclear test is just the start of a string of provocations if Washington doesn’t change its policies.
“The U.S., though belatedly, should choose between the two options: To respect the DPRK’s right to satellite launch and open a phase of detente and stability or to keep to its wrong road leading to the explosive situation by persistently pursuing its hostile policy toward the DPRK,” state media quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying.
The risk, he said, could be “a do-or-die battle.”