Argument

North Korean Nuclear Test Spites Both Washington and Beijing

The blast was deliberately timed as a slap in the face for Donald Trump — and perhaps for Xi Jinping too.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - SEPTEMBER 03:  Officers of the Korea Meteorological Administration watch TV news reporting on a possible nuclear test conducted by North Korea at the Korea Meteorological Administration center on September 3, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. South Korea, Japan and the U.S. detected an artificial earthquake from Kilju in the northern Hamgyong Province of North Korea. The Japanese government has confirmed they believe it was North Korea's sixth nuclear test.  (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - SEPTEMBER 03: Officers of the Korea Meteorological Administration watch TV news reporting on a possible nuclear test conducted by North Korea at the Korea Meteorological Administration center on September 3, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. South Korea, Japan and the U.S. detected an artificial earthquake from Kilju in the northern Hamgyong Province of North Korea. The Japanese government has confirmed they believe it was North Korea's sixth nuclear test. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

At 3 p.m. Pyongyang time on September 3, the beaming face of matronly newscaster Ri Chun Hee announced to North Koreans that the test of a hydrogen bomb had been a “perfect success,” and that the “two-stage” device could be mounted onto an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) — one capable of reaching the continental U.S.

The announcement came three hours after the underground blast, carried out at noon, shook seismologists’ needles across the region, registering as a 6.1 magnitude earthquake. South Korean and Japanese analysts reported that the scale of the explosion was 4 to 5 times greater than that of the last test, almost exactly a year ago on Sept. 9, 2016, and 10 or 11 times greater than the test before that.

As of writing, it was still unclear whether this was direct confirmation of a hydrogen bomb, notoriously tricky technology to master. But dismissing North Korea’s technological abilities has repeatedly proved unwise, as the reclusive state has repeatedly hurdled what were once seen as major obstacles to its all-consuming goal of providing a nuclear shield to its threatened regime.

North Korea has made a habit of spoiling the weekend. Missile firings and nuclear tests are usually set for major holidays, either American or Korean, and this sixth nuclear test had been widely anticipated. Last Monday, media reported that South Korea’s intelligence services had noted signs of preparation at the Punggye-ri test site.

But timing it for America’s Labor Day weekend instead of North Korea’s Day of the Foundation of the Republic on September 9 — the date of the last test — signaled the importance of spiting the United States. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump have been engaged in a game of nuclear chicken ever since January, when Trump pronounced on Twitter that a North Korean ICBM capable of reaching the United States “won’t happen!”.

Further Trumpian bluster, such as an impromptu promise of “fire and fury” on August 8, was met with both heated language and a series of missile tests from North Korea, most provocatively the overflight of Japan on August 28. Pyongyang backed off a threat to cover the U.S. island territory of Guam in an “enveloping fire,” with Kim saying he would “watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees.”

But the timing was also a slap in the face for China, where buildings in the northeast rattled with the force of the blast. The BRICS Forum for developing economies was opened by Chinese President Xi Jinping today in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen just hours after the test. China is also keen to avoid any disruption ahead of the 19th Party Congress set for October 18, a major political event where Xi is expected to cement his status as the most powerful leader in decades.

State media has put a heavy emphasis on Xi’s ability to deal skillfully with the world, claiming in a six-part propaganda series, “Major-Country Diplomacy,” that launched last week that China has seen “brilliant diplomatic achievements” under his rule.

“I think this is deliberate,” a Chinese expert on Korean affairs told Foreign Policy, asking for anonymity, “Even if it wasn’t, the leaders will see it as such.… They were already angry with Kim and now they will be even angrier.” China has been locked in a diplomatic spat with South Korea over the use of the U.S. THAAD anti-missile system, which Beijing sees as a threat to its own security. “When [South Korean president] Moon Jae-in came in, they thought they could change the situation,” the expert commented. Moon has expressed skepticism about the THAAD deployment. “But now the South Koreans will be even stronger on THAAD.”

Chinese state media refused to acknowledge the test for the first few hours, referring only to an “earthquake” in North Korea, as they waited for the official line to come down from Beijing. This eventually manifested as a terse statement from the Foreign Ministry “resolutely condemning” the test, as it did with the last one in 2016. But instead of nuclear warnings, Chinese television was filled with images of smiling foreign faces at Xiamen, a popular beach holiday destination in southeast China. On Chinese social media such as WeChat, comments discussing the test were deleted.

South Korea responded by immediately demanding “the most powerful” U.N. sanctions yet, while some in the country doubled down on their call for the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on Korean soil.  But the news came just after claims on Friday that the Trump administration is considering pulling out of KORUS, the U.S.-South Korean free trade deal. Abandoning the deal would signal a lack of commitment to the alliance at a critical moment. James Schoff, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, optimistically described the idea on Twitter as “too stupid” to happen.

Yet there may be more corrosive hazards than diplomatic fallout. While the test was carried out underground, the scale of the blast may have caused leakage. Initial signs indicated a cave-in shortly after the first explosion. Contamination reaching other countries, especially northeast China, would add considerable pressure for a strong response. But there may be very little that any of its neighbors, even China, can actually do to alter the North’s course.

Photo Credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

James Palmer is the Asia editor at Foreign Policy, which he joined in the winter of 2016. He was born in Manchester, U.K., and educated at Cambridge, before moving to Korea in 2002 and then China in 2003. He won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing in 2003, for his work on South Korea. He has written two books — The Bloody White Baron and Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes — and is working on a third. @BeijingPalmer

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