North Korea’s nuclear test sharpens rivalries

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Printer-friendly versionSend by emailOn 24 May North Korea issued a statement that it had carried out a second nuclear test. "It claimed the latest device, which was detonated underground in the north-east of the country, was more powerful than its previous nuclear test in 2006. Unconfirmed South Korean reports say Pyongyang has also test-fired several short-range ballistic missiles. The incident has provoked widespread international condemnation, and will surely lead to the further isolation of the totalitarian state." (BBC website 25 May 2009)

In response to this, there has been widespread condemnation from the ‘international community' with the USA, which currently has an estimated 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea, stating it would initiate patrols in the seas around the North. The response of Pyongyang to this was to state that if any of its ships were to be boarded by South Korean troops it would regard this as an act of aggression and respond with a huge military strike. What's behind this latest display of force?

In April of this year North Korea also faced widespread criticism to the launch of a missile, which it claimed was aimed at putting a satellite into space. This was disbelieved and seen as an attempt to test-fire missiles with long range capabilities. Behind this belligerence is an attempt by the North to strengthen its hand given two recent developments: the election of a new American President, and the failing health of its current leader Kim Jong-Ill. Undoubtedly North Korea, along with many other states, is testing the new President to see what reaction will be forthcoming from Washington. In continuity with the past, predictably Washington has come out in strong support of South Korea. It would seem highly unlikely, given the American troop presence in the South, that North Korea could seriously envisage any real kind of invasion or attack on the South, provoking as it would a massive response from the USA and a resultant obliteration of the North. Although North Korea has one of the biggest armies in the world, currently estimated at over 1.1 million personnel, its equipment dates from the Soviet era and would be completely ineffectual against US air power.

Much more likely is the idea of a strategy aimed at hardening their negotiating position. The fact that a country could test-fire nuclear weapons and also missiles to give a ‘show of force' in itself shows the kind of insane pitch that capitalism has reached. There always remains the possibility that things could get out of control, not only because of the particular irrationality of the Stalinist clique in charge of North Korea, but because of the fragile and uncertain nature of imperialist relations on a global scale.

One key aspect will be the attitude of North Korea's main backer, China, to these events. At the moment it seems that the Chinese, while reaffirming traditional ties of friendship with Pyongyang, are being unusually critical of the latest tests, no doubt fearing that they will lead to further instability in a region in which it is trying to impose its own form of ‘order'.  North Korea is a vital security buffer for China, and also a vital part of any strategic ‘encirclement' the USA may envisage against China.. North Korea's economy is already in a deep hole, with reports of massive malnutrition directly linked to the regime's inordinate investment in arms. If North Korea should provoke any local military conflicts or if the regime should collapse,  China would be immediately faced with the chaotic consequences, so its present cautious stance is understandable.  But it is equally possible that China could be pulled via its alliance with Pyongyang into regional conflicts as a result of North Korea's adventurism and the inevitability of a response by South Korea and the US.  

Graham 1/6/9