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North Korea Defies World, Tests Nuke: What’s New?

The hermit kingdom has sent shockwaves around the world again, literally and figuratively. North Korea has confirmed that it has conducted an underground nuclear test last Tuesday, February 12.

Seismic activity was detected by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) near the site of North Korea’s two previous atomic blasts, confirming that an underground nuclear detonation has taken place. According to the USGS, the disturbance, which took place at a depth of one kilometer, was initially measured at magnitude 4.9 but was later on upgraded to magnitude 5.1.

North Korea is under sanctions by the United Nations for its previous nuclear and long-range rocket tests done in defiance to sanction from the international community. It has previously conducted underground nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

Raised Concerns and Tensions

North Korea is considered  a rogue state that continues to act in defiance to U.N. sanctions. The country’s nuclear and missile programs were seen as an affront to the international community and have raised concerns and a call for sterner sanctions. Such actions do not really provoke any conflict but places South Korea and Japan in higher alert levels. Even China, Russia and the United States are wary of the nuclear capability of North Korea.

But North Korea’s provocative actions taunt said neighboring countries, particularly South Korea. Numerous instances in the past almost sparked armed confrontations, including:

The artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island last November 2010 raised tensions between the two Koreas. The incident killed and injured soldiers and civilians from both sides and prompted the civilian evacuation of Yeonpyeong. No further fighting erupted and the US and South Korea conducted joint military drills afterwards.

Another incident was the sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette ROKS Cheonan last March 2010. The incident killed 46 South Korean sailors. The investigation attributed the sinking to a torpedo fired by North Korean midget submarine. North Korea never claimed any involvement in the sinking. Tensions also escalated but eventually died off.

The point is, North Korea goes its own way without folding to the demands of the international community. When faced with conflict, North Korea goes back to seclusion only to shock the world again with another provocative action.

What are at stake for the international community

United States is primarily concerned with its security. It tries with all its power to prevent North Korea from developing a working Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) able to reach the US mainland. So far, it has only put the matter in front of the United Nations Security Council. The US is struggling to contain North Korea in short of war. With the recent testing of a long-range rocket and underground nuclear detonation, it is possible that the US is running out of time to prevent North Korea from achieving a long-range nuclear capability.

The US has regular air, naval, and ground forces in South Korea since the Korean War. At present, the US has around 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea. It conducts regular military exercises with South Korean forces for combat readiness if conflict with North Korea erupts or as a show of force.

China has been the greatest ally of North Korea. It should be greatly concerned with any conflict in the region as such conflict will damage its growth and economy.  China’s economy is interconnected with the world as it has trading ties with the US, Japan and South Korea. China is also North Korea’s trading partner, imports arrive in Chinese ports and cross the border by land. If conflict arises between North Korea and countries it has trade relations with, where will China side? China has always had North Korea’s back. It is in China’s best interest to prevent its ally from engaging in any conflict.

South Korea is technically still at war with its northern neighbor with a working ceasefire since 1953, the end of the Korean War. South Korea is at the greatest risk if it once again gets into conflict with the North. Being part of the G20 nations, South Korea is among the leading economies of  the world. If conflict strikes, it is expected that its economy will crash.

North Korea is already suffering from economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations. It is a very poor country that receives foreign aid. It can risk military defeat if conflict erupts. In actuality, North Korea might have a numerically superior armed forces but it could easily suffer defeat against technologically advanced foes. It relies on its nuclear capability as a deterrent against any military action by the U.S. or its neighbors.

Philippines’ main concern would be safety of its foreign workers, the security of the region and the adverse effects of conflict in its economy. Conflict would affect South Korea, which is one of the country’s big trading partners. It would also require the evacuation of more than 50,000 overseas Filipino workers from Korea which the government has already long-planned for. If  conflict erupts, it will greatly affect the country’s economy as foreign remittance from South Korea and trade will be stopped.

What’s Next?

Analysts say that North Korea will collapse in five or 10 years. North Korea’s action is likely a statement that they are here to remain. Such actions might intend to send a message that the country is going strong under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, son of deceased leader Kim Jong Il. As far as North Korea’s nuclear capability is concerned, it is on its way to developing a capability of deploying missiles following long-range missile tests last year. It is not likely that the hermit kingdom will stop its nuclear program and fold to the pressures from the international community.

It is not likely that the United States will make any military action against North Korea as it is still recovering from its two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration, being Democrat, is more focused on improving the American economy and will not go to war unless provoked.

China’s new leadership is about to hold power in March. It is said that its thrust would be to improve relations with the United States and other countries. It is still to be determined if China’s relations with North Korea will remain  tolerant or if it will be open to impose sanctions on its old ally.

In response to the nuclear test, South Korea heightened military alert levels. Last February 14, South Korea revealed a cruise missile that can be used to hit targets in North Korea. This is another show of force by the South to send a strong message to the North. It can be expected that joint military drills with US forces are underway.

More calls for sanctions are being made in the United Nations. In the end, what will happen to North Korea following its nuclear test? Probably, the whole issue will die down again with North Korea going back to being a hermit and other states not risking any conflict. And perhaps, the issue will only resurface when North Korea shocks the world again eventually, with a working long-range nuclear missile.