North Korea has blasted its way to a stronger bargaining position and there is little the world can do about it

Among the many things that are not said about North Korea is that it does not disappoint. Consistent with this record, over the last few weeks it had everyone to think that it would soon conduct its third nuclear test and, on Tuesday, that is what it did.

The world has also not disappointed observers. It has made the predictable noises about how terribly North Korea behaves. But the world forgets that, like any other country, the United States included, North Korea has its own rationality. Within that framework, its persistence with the nuclear programme in the face of extreme hardship, makes perfect sense.

That rationality is not different from any other country’s, namely, preserving the system that governs the country. The U.S. does it, Europe does it, China does it. So why should North Korea not do it?

Indeed, one could even say that there has been far more consistency in the way North Korea has been behaving over the years than in any other country. For example, elsewhere, a change in leadership has led to changes in policy. If the new leader has been from the opposition, this has been a given; but sometimes even if he/she has been from the same party — as in the case of Park Geun-hye in South Korea — policy has been at least tweaked.

Also, we must bear in mind that it is only the western media that has been hoping for a change in North Korean policy each time there has been a change of leadership there — of which there have been only two in the last 64 years! North Korea itself has not wavered for the last 30 years.

That said, what does North Korea expect to achieve through its nuclear policy? For the most part we can only make guesses.

One thing is for sure, however: the military holds the real power and it would have to be appeased before trying anything on the economic front — even at the cost of enraging China, which of late has been putting mild pressure on it to desist from further nuclear activities.

Impact of testing

Also, few people know but within North Korea there has been a flurry of activity with information from outside flowing in through mobiles and smart phones that have been finding their way into the country largely through the defectors who have left the country. This has had some impact on a leadership anxious to retain its esteem in the eyes of the populace.

But the devil lies in the detail and the key aspect of this latest test is the “miniaturized device.” It was probably a uranium device, which means the bomb has got smaller and the bang may have become bigger.

The real issue though is not about the physical bang. It is about the bang it can get from the negotiating table with far more bargaining power.

Through these tests, North Korea has pretty much advertised to the world what it can put up for sale in the illegal market. No wonder the Indian response has linked Pakistan to the test.

Despite all international efforts to stop it, North Korea continues to pose a proliferation risk globally. Pyongyang will be able to finance its construction activities and other economic needs either through the sale of nuclear technology, components or even devices, or by getting more out of America through its enhanced bargaining power.

In either case it must feel that it is only better off from testing again. Head it wins, tails, the others lose.

That, at any rate, is how North Korea sees it.

Reunify to denuclearise

The country most affected, of course, is South Korea. This test will put pressure on the incoming administration of Park Geun-hye, who is to take charge on February 25.

During her campaign, she had assured the people that she would take a balanced approach towards Pyongyang; that while she would engage with it, she would also look to get North Korea to denuclearise. The North Korean leadership must be sniggering now.

So what should she do? Her best strategy would be to work towards reunification because that would be the best way to achieve her goal.

South Korea will get to inherit not only the North’s missile and nuclear programmes but also its rich mineral resources to take care of the economic impact of reunification on the South Korean economy. North Korea is said to have 300 varieties of minerals worth around $6 trillion. The world will be happy, secure in the thought that Korean weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are in safe hands. Will North Korea agree? It might if it’s made to feel that it’s entering reunification on an equal footing because of its developed WMD programme. After all, this is East Asia where it is as largely a question of Che’myeon or “saving face.”

(Vyjayanti Raghavan is an associate professor at JNU teaching Korean language and culture. She has worked extensively on North East Asia.)