North Korea's Next Nuclear Test Could Serve as a Regional Tipping Point

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South Korean President Park Geun-hye warned this week that if North Korea conducts another nuclear test, it could prompt the volatile country's neighbors to seek their own nuclear defense. "North Korea would effectively be crossing the Rubicon," she told the Wall Street Journal

North Korea's last nuclear test, which took place in 2013, prompted increased Western sanctions against the country and escalating tensions between Pyongyang and its rivals. At the height of the tensions, North Korea temporarily shuttered an industrial complex that it operates jointly with South Korea, harming its own economy in the process, and offered repeated invectives against Seoul and Washington. Now, however, Western officials fear that the next round of tests could prove more threatening to the North's neighbors. 

Back in March, North Korea threatened to carry out a "new form" of nuclear testing. The country's foreign ministry didn't offer more specifics, but some in the west suspect this means they will test out small nuclear devices that could be carried by intercontinental ballistic missiles. According to the WSJ, some experts fear that another test — the nation's fourth ever — would enable North Korea to successfully develop such weapons. Most experts believe they have working nuclear weapons, but still lack the capacity to deliver them via rocket.

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Park thinks that this would prompt neighbors, like Japan and (presumably) South Korea itself, to explore their own nuclear options further. "It would be difficult for us to prevent a nuclear domino from occurring in this area," she said. 

Even China, North Korea's only significant ally, agreed that the situation is threatening. South Korea's foreign ministry said in anticipation of a visit from their Chinese counterpart that "the two ministers agreed to step up cooperation based on the united position that they object to the North's nuclear test and that recent nuclear activities by the North pose a serious threat to the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and the region." Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected be the first to visit South Korea before taking a trip to the North. 

The relationship between North and South Korea has been especially rocky in recent weeks. In April, the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea — which is supposedly tasked with actual reconciliation — referred to Park as a "dirty prostitute" and a "comfort woman," after she met with President Barack Obama. And two weeks ago, the North threatened to "wipe out" the South Korean government. To be fair, a South Korean official had just said the North "must disappear soon." 

But South Koreans appear to be hopeful that ties between the neighbors could be restored. According to the country's Yonhap news agency, a survey of 1,000 people found that 58.2 percent of respondents thought South Korea should cooperate with North Korea, and 22.8 percent said Seoul should provide assistance to its neighbor. 

In other news, North Korean scientists have apparently developed a mushroom-based sports drink, which is "very effective in enhancing physical ability of sportspersons and recovering from their fatigues.” Just what you need when preparing for all-out regional war.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.