North Korea’s nuclear test isn’t the game changer that the country’s dictator Kim Jong-un claims it to be. Contrary to his boasts Tuesday, the device tested was almost certainly not a hydrogen bomb (which can explode with thousands of times the power of an atomic bomb). It puts Kim no closer to his dream of a nuclear-tipped long-range missile. As only the country’s fourth nuclear test (and the third remotely successful one), it doesn’t alter the region’s, much less the world’s, military balance one iota.
But that doesn’t mean the test is nothing to worry about. Given that we’re talking about the youngest, most hermetic, best armed, and possibly most megalomaniacal dictator in the world today, it means quite the opposite.
Last month, to the skepticism of many, Kim announced that his scientists were ready to test an H-bomb. On Tuesday, or early Wednesday morning in North Korea, after reports of a seismic event resembling either an earthquake or a nuclear explosion, he proclaimed that they had done so. In fact, though, Western officials and physicists say that the blast registered only 5.1 on the Richter scale—the same as North Korea’s last nuclear test, in February 2013—and that its explosive yield was probably a little less than the earlier blast’s 7 kilotons (the equivalent of 7,000 tons of TNT, about half the power of the Hiroshima bomb at the end of World War II).
What disturbs many, though, isn’t any facts about the test but rather the political context surrounding it. “This isn’t about us or what we think of as geopolitics,” says Daniel Sneider, associate director of Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. “It’s more about North Korea’s domestic politics and regional politics.”
In recent months, Kim has reached out to China and South Korea, requesting economic assistance and expressing an interest in calmer political relations. He was told that his nuclear activities would be obstacles to progress on both scores. Some see the nuclear test as a message from Kim that harmony will come on his terms only.
This stubbornness may seem odd, given that North Korea is one of the most impoverished—and the most isolated—country on earth. China is its only diplomatic ally and the source of nearly all of its aid and trade; many South Koreans, including the country’s current conservative president, Park Geun-hye, desire some rapprochement with its northern neighbor. (Park said in 2014 that Korean unification, on the South’s terms of course, would prove an economic “bonanza” for all.) But the North Korean leader—like his late father and grandfather, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, the only two previous leaders of the communist state since it was founded in 1948—depends on isolation and oppression for his reign. The question, which concerns many, is how long he can sustain this form of rule—and what actions he’s willing to take, at what risk, to do so.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is, by all accounts, increasingly annoyed with the young Kim’s antics, especially those that involve nuclear weapons. If he wants to crack down on Kim, he has the leverage to do so—and is probably the only world leader who does. The problem (and Kim almost certainly knows this) is that China has other, deeper interests that keep Xi from exerting decisive pressure. If North Korea’s regime collapsed (a strong possibility if the Kim dynasty’s last heir—the regime’s only source of legitimacy—were toppled), two things would likely happen. First, 10 million North Korean refugees would suddenly dash across the border to China’s remote northeastern territories, creating a humanitarian crisis that would stretch Beijing’s resources. Second, the U.S. Navy and Air Force could move its warships and combat planes away from Northeast Asia (as North Korea would no longer pose a threat to South Korea or Japan) and toward Taiwan and the South China Sea, thus posing a direct threat to Beijing’s vital interests.
Kim’s father and grandfather used their incipient nuclear program as a bargaining chip, and, eventually, the West learned how to bargain. The Agreed Framework, an arms-control treaty negotiated with President Bill Clinton, halted this program for several years. But then three things happened. First, the United States reneged on its side of the deal: In exchange for North Korea’s nuclear freeze (with verification by onsite international inspectors), Clinton was supposed to provide two lightweight nuclear reactors (which could only generate electrical power), but Congress didn’t authorize the money. Second, President George W. Bush formally tossed out the treaty soon after his inauguration. (Nonetheless, Bush announced that North Korea would cross a “red line” if it resumed reprocessing; when the North Koreans did, Bush did nothing.)
Finally, the Agreed Framework had one crucial flaw: It froze only North Korea’s plutonium reprocessing and said nothing about enriching uranium, the other path to a nuclear bomb. (The Americans who negotiated the Iranian nuclear deal last year learned from the Korea agreement and insisted—successfully—on cutoffs or sharp cutbacks along all feasible paths to a bomb.)
When President Obama entered the White House, he tried to restore long-tattered relations with North Korea, but especially after Kim Jong-un came to power in 2012, the prospects dimmed, then vanished. Even longtime advocates of diplomacy with Pyongyang acknowledge that negotiations about almost anything are pointless as long as Kim Jong-un is in power.
Hard as it was to do diplomacy with the elder Kims, Western diplomats came to discern patterns, a distinct negotiating style, and figured out ways to play the game. The most nerve-racking thing about the young Kim is that the elders’ rules no longer apply. “He doesn’t seem to be following any rulebook,” says Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations, whose 1999 book, Negotiating on the Edge, laid out the rules for talking with North Korea. “My book was relevant up to 2011. With Kim Jong-un, it isn’t any more.”
Another difference, Snyder says, is that the elder Kims came up with revolutionary cadres, whose counsel they could trust when they came to power. Kim has no such background (he is thought to have attended prep school in Switzerland), and he has killed all of his mentors, except for those who have mysteriously disappeared. In other words, nobody knows Kim’s objectives apart from the aggrandizement of power, and it’s unclear what he will do, how far he will go, to that end. That’s what makes him scary—and brazen acts, such as another nuclear test, scarier than they otherwise would be.