Inside Story

North Korea: Altering the balance of power?

As Pyongyang conducts another nuclear test, we ask what can regional powers do to counter its nuclear ambitions.

North Korea has carried out its third nuclear test in defiance of international criticism.

“I’m not sure that it alters the balance of power but it gives North Korea a greater reliability in the warheads that it presumably will be mounting on missiles, missiles that are already proving to be able to hit all of South Korea and much of Japan. This affects the threat that North Korea’s neighbours feel and it impinges on China because Japan and South Korea will be building up their defences in response.”

– Mark Fitzpatrick, the director of the non-proliferation and disarmament programme at the International Institute of Strategic Studies

The test could bring North Korea one step closer to developing a warhead small enough to arm any of the many missile types it has stockpiled, which in turn would lead to other powers increasing their levels of nuclear deterence in a new and deeply dangerous arms race.

Many had hoped that Kim Jong-un would distance himself from the “military first” policies of his father. But as Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett reports, the test indicates that Pyongyang’s foreign policy remains one rooted in flexing its military might.

To what extent does this threaten to dangerously alter the balance of power in the region?

North Korea’s nuclear test comes at a time of heightened tension in the region and it has drawn broad criticism, even from a long-standing regional ally China.

Despite its material and political support for North Korea, the latest tests seem to be testing China’s patience.

An article in The Global Times, a newspaper close to the Chinese government, had previously warned that North Korea would “pay a heavy price” if it proceeded with the test.

And Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, described the test as a “grave threat” that could not be tolerated.

Tuesday’s test appeared to be timed to receive maximum international attention given that China, Japan and South Korea are all undergoing sensitive political transitions, while US President Obama is beginning a second term. And South Korea currently holds the presidency of the UN Security Council which is holding an emergency sitting.   

It would appear that China is the key in dealing with the crisis, so are we going to see a tougher policy under the new leadership of Xi Jinping?

It’s increased the tension in the Korean peninsula. Also in some way it’s changed the overall balance, a little bit in Northeast Asia because a nuclear- armed North Korea obviously will be [a] serious issue [that] all powers involved [will] have to address, especially China. This is a major foreign policy test for the new Chinese leadership.”

– Richard Hu, an associate professor at Hong Kong University

The Big Five – the US, Russia, China, the UK and France – the first five countries to develop and test nuclear weapons also have veto power in the UN Security Council.

Four other countries have either tested nuclear weapons or are believed to have them.

These include Israel, which has never acknowledged its weapons programme, India and Pakistan both of which are thought to have around 50 nuclear warheads each, and North Korea, which carried out its third test on Tuesday.

Some allege Iran has a nuclear weapons programme, though there is no conclusive evidence the country is attempting to produce a bomb.

Why is the North Korean nuclear weapons programme regarded as such a threat by other members of the nuclear club? And what can regional powers do to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions? Are tougher sanctions the answer?

Inside Story, with presenter Mike Hanna, discusses with guests: Kunihiko Miyake, the research director of the Canon Institute for Global Studies; Richard Hu, an associate professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong; and Mark Fitzpatrick, the director of the non-proliferation and disarmament programme at the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

“It will give them more confidence that they have a credible deterrent. I still personally believe that they want that deterrent to essentially keep the Americans out and buy them space and room in which to operate.”

Siegfried Hecker, Stanford University