Aaron Lim: North Korea's nuclear weapon lacks teeth

A North Korean soldier patrols along the river bank of the North Korean town of Sinuiju. Photo / AP
A North Korean soldier patrols along the river bank of the North Korean town of Sinuiju. Photo / AP

Mao Zedong referred to nuclear weapons as "paper tigers" which would never bite, a description which is still relevant 60 years later in light of North Korea's recent nuclear test.

North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, began a nuclear energy programme in the 1960s with help from his backers in the Soviet Union. But it was his son, Kim Jong-il, who accelerated the programme. Although the country's 2006 nuclear test was judged to be a failure, its second test in 2009 was not.

Yesterday's nuclear test was North Korea's first since leader Kim Jong Un took power in December 2011 following the death of his father.

North Korea's third nuclear test, combined with the pariah state's recent developments in ballistic missile technology is certainly a cause for concern. The country's nuclear weapons capability is clearly advancing.

However its nuclear weapons programme is still a long way from being a direct threat to Washington.

Even if North Korea becomes a fully fledged nuclear power, its nuclear weapons will remain a "paper tiger" which is unlikely to bite the United States, regardless of the rhetoric released by Pyongyang.

At the state level, a nuclear North Korea can be managed by the international community. Containment and deterrence worked during the Cold War era when the threat of nuclear-armed states was more extensive and global in character.

Pyongyang's continuation of its nuclear weapons programme is likely to have two main goals, none of which are aimed at obliterating Washington.

Yesterday's nuclear test was Kim Jong Un following his father's playbook of antagonizing the West in an attempt to win food and financial aid as an inducement to draw it back to negotiations on its weapons programs. A secondary reason for the test is likely to be an attempt by Kim Jong Un to maintain his standing domestically and to retain the backing of the North Korean military.

While President Barrack Obama has called for "swift and credible action by the international community", the reality is that there are few political and no military options available to the United Nations Security Council in dealing with North Korea.

The Obama administration's threat to impose more sanctions on Pyongyang is also a "paper tiger." There are almost no sanctions left to apply to North Korea. North Korea's main source of financial and food aid, China, is the only state capable of imposing sanctions which could hurt Pyongyang.

But even though Kim Jong Un openly defied China's opposition to another nuclear test, Beijing is unlikely to turn off the supply of money and oil to the pariah state.

China fears a failed state on its borders and an influx of North Korean refugees much more than a neighbour with nuclear weapons. Although it is likely that Beijing will participate, or at the very least endorse another round of sanctions against Pyongyang, they will not be sanctions which will hurt North Korea in any meaningful way.

The real danger to global security arising from a nuclear capable North Korea is the impact it will have on the relationship between China, Japan and the United States.

Pyongyang's determination to become a nuclear power is certain to accelerate ballistic missile defence efforts by Japan in conjunction with America. Tokyo justifying increases in its military capabilities because of a nuclear North Korea is bound to increase friction between Japan and China.

A re-militarized Japan will definitely exacerbate the already tense relationship between Tokyo and Beijing which stems from the atrocities committed by Japan in World War II against Chinese civilians.

The islands in the East China Sea administered by Japan but claimed by Beijing as sovereign territory is already a potential flashpoint. The real danger from a nuclear North Korea is that it could eventually become the tipping point which sparks a more serious regional crisis.

* Aaron Lim completed his Master's thesis on military strategy. He has worked an analyst for the New Zealand Army, stock-market operator NZX and as a journalist. He recently published his first novel UnHoly Wars Book One: Revelations in the Kindle Bookstore.

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