In testing a nuclear device, North Korea again turns its nose to the international community
Kim Jong Un had a brief moment this year to change North Korea's trajectory, to choose Google over guns. Instead of experimenting with greater connectivity to the outside world, North Korea has chosen a path of new sanctions, increased pressure from China, and the political impossibility of a negotiated "live and let live" agreement that could have traded nuclear progress for regime stability.
Today's nuclear test continues North Korea's policy of favoring a military-first policy over the needs of its people. This is perhaps not surprising, but it is disappointing.
Though the full impact of today's events will depend on yet-to-be-determined nature of the nuclear technology tested, taking the North Koreans at their initial word means that they sought progress in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead for use with the missile technology it has also recently tested. This growing capacity significantly raises the level of the perceived threat to the United States, Japan and South Korea.
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There was another path. Some analysts saw last year some initial signs of attempts at economic opening. After all, the benefits of engagement are compelling. The country's GDP was about $40 billion in 2011. That year, Google's revenue was $37.9 billion. North Korea's leaders had to know that the great needs of their people would remain unmet and the limits on the North's economic potential would remain insurmountable, though, until it found a way to reintegrate with the international community.
But North Korea chose the other path. It was clear at least from January's United Nations Security Council resolution that North Korea could expect a harsh reaction to further nuclear testing. The benefits of an open economy are many, but they are not available to a belligerent North Korea.
Some analysts describe this test as a call from a predictable North Korean playbook -- take provocative action, then negotiate from a position of perceived strength. But static playbooks don't age well, and repeated tactics often yield diminishing returns.
In this case, the international political landscape has shifted to erase any potential gains from a tactic that relies on provocation. New governments in Japan and South Korea are committed politically to significant action -- Japan has already called for "quite severe" sanctions. A third nuclear test is likely to eliminate what little appetite there was in Washington for negotiations. And, a new Chinese leadership's credibility has been challenged by a nuclear test amid widespread reports that China's frustration with North Korea was growing.