The annual leader’s New Year message from North Korea is always full of bluster and provocation. Jan. 1, 2016 was no exception as Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un told his people and the world, “We will absolutely not accept it if we are bothered by invaders and agitators, even in a minor way. We will respond firmly in the style of a ruthless holy war for justice and unification.”
He must have known full well that he was about to pull the pin on the North’s latest nuclear test – this time of a hydrogen bomb (probably, maybe but maybe not) and the fourth nuclear test since 2006 as well as a significant advance in the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities. The test capped a strange 10 days in the DPRK that began with the reported death of 73-year-old Kim Yang-gon, the senior leader tasked with handling Pyongyang’s fractious, and recently deteriorating, relationship with Seoul, in a car crash. Of course, in a country as secretive as the DPRK and where the last 18 months have seen an almost unprecedented number of deadly purges of other senior leaders (perhaps as many as 75 officials purged) once thought to be close to Kim Jong-un, the rumour mill went into overdrive. However, it’s hard to come up with a reason for purging Kim Yong-gon. There’s been no talk of any failings or disloyalty and sometimes, even in North Korea, a car crash really is just a car crash.
The nuclear test was more expected. North Korea’s state media warned that preparations for a fourth nuclear test were underway last October and that it would be an advanced weapon. There were plenty of reasons to expect a test early in the year – not least that it’s Kim Jong-un’s 33rd birthday on Friday and something spectacular is not uncommon to coincide with the Supreme Leader’s birthday. Additionally the Seventh Congress of the ruling Korean Workers Party is slated for May. The Party doesn’t hold them often – the sixth was in 1980. It is expected that Kim Jong-un will use the congress to firmly establish his rule and control of the party after all the recent purging. The domestic boost of a successful test and what may come from that would help consolidate his position.
So what does he expect to happen now? Kim may feel internally secure at the moment — he both rules and reigns securely as one analyst put it — but he would like the much-stalled Six Party Talks to resume. Not least because restarting them usually means a resumption of aid shipments. And he needs the aid.
Last year was a tough one for North Korea’s economy and people. With world attention focussed on the Syrian crisis the UN reported that aid donations to the North were 50 percent down on previous years. Not just food but also fuel, fertilizer and pharmaceuticals. Keeping the lights on and people fed has been tough. After the last nuclear test in 2013 Pyongyang called for a resumption of the Six Party Talks, but it never happened. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, on a visit to Beijing, agreed with the Chinese that talks should be resumed, though this may be interpreted as a reward for bad behavior on Pyongyang’s part. Traditionally the resumption of the talks has been matched with resumed higher levels of aid shipments. Hungry people are unhappy people and probably the biggest single potential threat to Kim Jong-un’s regime. Resumed and increased food aid shipments would ameliorate this threat somewhat.
So Kim Jong-un’s bomb – whether it turns out to be an H-Bomb or not – has got our attention. The United Nations will meet to consider new sanctions against the DPRK but it’s hard to see what new sanctions they can impose. It’s equally hard to see a stubborn Pyongyang caring. The more interesting part of the equation after this test is China. President Xi Jinping has noticeably not had that much to say about North Korea and, though the North often ignores Beijing, it doesn’t like being ignored by the bigger neighboring one-party state. China consistently, and again today, says it wants a “stable” North Korea. Beijing analysts have been watching the mass of Syrian refugees trudging across Eastern Europe towards Germany with some alarm. It does not want an unstable or totally collapsed regime in North Korea sending millions across the Yalu River seeking sanctuary in northeast China. Beijing is quite open about not wanting a refugee crisis on its borders.