Although Monday's detonation did not appear to be a significant technical advance over Pyongyang's first underground test three years ago, it has triggered a faster and more negative response from other countries, including China and Russia, North Korea's historical allies. The missile firings are adding to the tension. .You don't say.
South Korea said Tuesday that it would join a U.S.-led effort to intercept ships from countries like North Korea that are suspected of exporting missiles and weapons of mass destruction -- a step it had been reluctant to take in the past for fear of provoking its isolated neighbor into additional retaliation. North Korea has repeatedly said it would regard the South's participation in the security effort as a "declaration of war."
The U.N. Security Council moved quickly in an emergency meeting Monday to condemn the North Korean test, saying it constituted a clear violation of a 2006 U.N. resolution barring the communist state from exploding a nuclear weapon. The council's speedy response reflected what analysts called deep displeasure by Russia and China, and contrasted with protracted discussions that followed North Korea's April 5 launch of a long-range missile.
The Chinese government, North Korea's main economic patron, said it was "resolutely opposed" to the test and told Pyongyang to avoid actions that heighten tensions and return to multi-nation talks focused on dismantling its nuclear program. China's response Monday was significantly more pointed than it was to North Korea's first nuclear test, in October 2006.
President Obama, whose staff was informed of Monday's test about an hour before it took place and who had been briefed several times in the past week about the possibility, accused North Korea of "blatant violation of international law."
"By acting in blatant defiance of the United Nations Security Council, North Korea is directly and recklessly challenging the international community," Obama said in a brief statement outside the White House. "North Korea's behavior increases tensions and undermines stability in Northeast Asia. Such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea's isolation."
China's clearly tired of this, and it looks like the South Koreans are feeling none-too-"sunshine" about it as well. But I'm not sure either mattered that much. (Japan's outrage certainly wouldn't, considering the North Koreans' relationship with that country.) Pyongyang is almost certainly smarting over the widespread perception that their previous nuclear test was a failure, and wants the world's attention to return to the DPRK and their successful development of nuclear capability.
They want that for the same reason they always have: more concessions at the bargaining table, and security against any outside invaders. Considering Kim Jong-Il's health situation, they may think they need it; there's likely to be a bitter battle over who gets the throne after he's gone. It's likely that Pyongyang is trying to prevent exploitation of that period of "weakness" by the DPRK's various perceived enemies. Those concessions will also be seen as necessary to sustain their grip on power; their fragile economy isn't getting any better, and exports of weaponry are only enough to sustain the military.
Will it work? I'm not sure. The Japanese, Korean, and Chinese responses are the ones that matter most. China can pull the plug on North Korea's economy in days if they so desire, and all involved know that. Their annoyance may hint at a serious threat of doing so in the future. South Korea joining American counterproliferation efforts is unlikely to start a "war", whatever Pyongyang says, and I wouldn't be terribly surprised if the South Koreans follow through.
It's Japan that concerns me. Nothing stokes the fires of Japanese nationalist outrage faster or fiercer than the DPRK; it was the flyover of a DPRK missile in 1998 that really sparked the movement to reform Japan's peace constitution and Japan's anti-nuclear principles, as well as Japan's extensive missile defense capabilities. You've already got one hothead in the LDP yelling about "preemptive strikes"; who's to say where things go as the reality of the situation sinks in.