On Sunday, North Korea conducted its largest ever nuclear test. The underground detonation registered as a 6.3 on the Richter Scale and could be felt miles away across the Chinese border.
On Monday, South Korea responded to the test with military drills intended to demonstrate the ability of its armed forces to effectively target North Korean nuclear sites.
Also on Monday, US president Donald Trump spoke with South Korean President, Moon Jae-in about the test. Together they agreed on a removal of South Korean missile payload limits.
South Korean officials also believe that the North is preparing for yet another test, this time another ICBM. They think it is likely that this test could be carried out around September 9 as this date marks the anniversary of North Korea’s founding.
The continued detonation of nuclear devices, especially of this size, makes the threat of accidental environmental contamination far more real. Although this topic has been kept quiet, there have been fears among Chinese officials that North Korean testing has already resulted in the contamination of the Yalu River.
China is one of the few remaining friendly powers for North Korea and this is gradually becoming a significant liability for Beijing. Other relatively recent North Korean missile tests have curiously taken place at the same time as important economic summits for China.
Geng Shuang, speaking on behalf of the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that this latest test was, “against the will of the international community,” and that it will, “meet with China’s disapproval.”
US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley was quick to condemn the test and reiterated long standing American opposition to further North Korean militarization. Speaking to the UN Security Council on Monday she said that, “the time for half measures is over […] our country’s patience is not unlimited.”
President Donald Trump has been critical of the diplomatic approach chosen by the South Korean establishment. He tweeted on Sunday, saying, “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!”
Russian president, Vladimir Putin, called the test “provocative” and said that, “ramping up military hysteria will lead to nothing good. It will lead to a global catastrophe.” He also expressed doubts about the true value of a fresh round of economic sanctions, describing them as “a road to nowhere,” and as “useless.”
The North Korean regime is not winning any allies with its consistent push toward military augmentation. In fact, as has been the case for some time, it continues to create a far more hostile international community.
It is evident, however, that the regime is slowly gaining influence. Its threats somehow hold more weight than they did in the past. Not only is North Korea approaching a competitive missile delivery system for small nuclear warheads but it also now possesses the rudimentary capability to deliver a devastating EMP attack (delivered by means of a hydrogen bomb detonated in the high atmosphere), the effective range of which may eventually encompass much of the United States.
It will be of value to realize that the North may be capable of this. At the very least it will be necessary to understand that this small nation must not be underestimated.
Vladimir Putin put it quite well on Monday, when he made the argument that Kim Jong Un is convinced that he needs nuclear weapons in order to remain in power. I tend to agree with the Russian president. With an economy dwarfed by many of its most vocal adversaries, the North has scarce means with which to compete meaningfully on the international stage, much less to fundamentally ensure its own territorial sovereignty.
The likelihood of a war erupting has been low for a long time, despite the war of words and intermittent spats of violence. This situation may change, especially as major powers are driven closer and closer to the breaking point. What can be said for certain is that a war would be catastrophic for both North and South Korea. It is for this reason that neither side desires a hot conflict.