With any new weapons tests, Pyongyang digs its own grave
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears to have decided to conduct another nuclear test. The North's state media reported that Kim had expressed his firm intention to take "substantial and high-profile state measures" in response to the January 23 UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions.
The dispatch from the North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) did not elaborate on the "measures", but they were believed to be referring to an atomic bomb test in light of Pyongyang's escalating threats to detonate a nuclear weapon following the UNSC's resolution against its rocket launch in December.
According to the KCNA report, Kim presided over a meeting of top officials in national defence and foreign affairs to discuss the "grave situation" facing the isolated country. At the meeting the young leader disclosed his decision and follow-up measures.
If Kim has approved a nuclear test, it could be conducted around February 16, the birthday of his late father, Kim Jong-il. Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket on December 12, five days ahead of the first anniversary of the iron-fisted ruler's death.
According to a US institute that analysed the latest satellite images of the Punggye-ri nuclear test facility, the site is ready for the North to undertake a test in a few weeks, once the leadership in Pyongyang gives the order.
If the North conducts a nuclear test as expected, it will be its third, following others in 2006 and 2009. But this one carries far more significance than the previous two as it comes after the North has shown that its missiles can travel 10,000 kilometres, putting San Francisco in range.
Pyongyang's nuclear threat would carry more weight when it acquires the ability to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a missile. The imminent test could help it improve its miniaturisation technology.
The North's next test is also cause for grave concern as it could use highly enriched uranium instead of plutonium. Centrifuge facilities for uranium enrichment are more difficult to detect than plutonium-based nuclear programmes. This means Pyongyang would be able to beef up its nuclear arsenal more secretively. So if the North successfully tests a uranium-based bomb, it will mark a major breakthrough in its nuclear technology.
These and other reasons make it imperative for the countries participating in the six-party talks on the denuclearisation of North Korea to stop the anticipated nuclear test. China's role is especially important, as it is the only country that knows what buttons to push to rein in the rogue state.
Following Pyongyang's December rocket launch, Beijing allowed Washington to tighten the screws on the recalcitrant state. Now, it needs to pull its economic levers to prevent its wayward ally from detonating another nuclear bomb. In this respect, it is encouraging that Chinese papers have begun to float the idea of taming Pyongyang by cutting Beijing's fuel and food assistance.
In an editorial, the Global Times, a sister paper of the official People's Daily, warned, "If North Korea engages in further nuclear tests, China will not hesitate to reduce its assistance to North Korea."
The editorial suggested China's policy toward North Korea could change by noting the need for Beijing to stop supporting North Korea unilaterally in inter-Korean issues and to take a more neutral and diversified approach.
China has yet to adjust its North Korea policy under its new leader, Xi Jinping. Like Hu Jintao, Xi is expected to put stability on the Korean Peninsula before anything else. But the Global Times editorial stressed the need to change this stance. It states: "China hopes for a stable peninsula, but it's not the end of the world if there's trouble there. This should be the baseline of China's position."
North Korea should heed this warning. It should not commit the folly of boxing itself in. Should it go ahead with a third nuclear test, it would find itself surrounded by enemies on all sides, with even China turning its back on it. The test could prove to be its undoing.