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Asia

Limited tools to rein in Pyongyang's nuclear intentions

Despite expressions of outrage and concern, experts believe the international community has few meaningful tools at its disposal to bring Kim Jong Un's belligerent regime to heel. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

They may have been caught off-guard by the nuclear test that North Korea conducted at its Punggye-ri testing grounds on January 6, but governments around the world were quick to condemn the latest act of defiance by the regime of Kim Jong Un.

From Washington, Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul, as well as from the New York headquarters of the United Nations, the reactions were unanimously scathing. Pyongyang has flouted UN sanctions imposed after previous nuclear and missile tests, government spokespersons stated, and the regime's reckless behavior threatens regional and even global security.

But the problem is that despite the strong words and the anticipated tightening of international sanctions that are already the toughest imposed on any nation in the world, the international community is largely powerless to make Kim and his henchmen respect the norms of global society.

China 'only hope'

Asked just what the rest of the world might do to force Pyongyang to at least moderate its behavior, Jun Okumura's assessment was succinct: "Almost nothing."

Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, said Beijing is perhaps the only hope the rest of the world has of exerting any pressure on the regime - but the fact that Pyongyang declined on this occasion to give its sole significant ally any warning of the impending nuclear test suggests that ties between the two nations are already frayed.

Watch video 02:05

World condemns North Korea's nuclear test

"Also, for its own reasons, Beijing is not going to do anything that destabilizes the regime," Okumura said.

Beijing is concerned that the collapse of the regime could lead to a humanitarian crisis on an unprecedented scale at the same time, potentially, as a civil war between factions competing to take control of the country. "And North Korea knows Beijing does not want that scenario, so Pyongyang can just keep pushing," he said.

Within hours of the test, Beijing announced that it was summoning the North Korean ambassador in order to lodge a strong protest. "North Korea should stop taking any actions that could worsen the situation on the Korean peninsula," Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, told reporters.

She added that North Korea should commit to returning to the stalled six-nation talks on ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons. Pyongyang's representatives walked out of the last session of the talks in 2009, with the government vowing to push ahead with its nuclear program in order to protect itself from the US and other enemies.

'Ironclad defense'

The United States, meanwhile, has reiterated its "ironclad defense commitment" to South Korea during a telephone discussion between Han Min-koo, the South Korean defense minister, and US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

President Barack Obama has also held talks with Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, in which he reaffirmed the US commitment to Japan's security. The two leaders agreed to "work together to forge a united and strong international response to North Korea's reckless behavior", the White House said in a statement.

Stephen Nagy, an associate professor in the department of politics and international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University, says relations between Pyongyang and the rest of the world appear to be stuck in a "cycle of action and reaction" that has arguably served the regime well in the past.

Pyongyang marginalized

"The North Korean leadership feels it has been marginalized politically and economically in recent months and they believe that they can win back the world's attention by putting on a show," Nagy told DW.

"They have seen Japan and South Korea making progress on bilateral issues and officials from the US, South Korea and Japan are due to meet in Seoul next week to discuss shared security concerns, while Beijing is busy building closer ties with Seoul and publicly scolded Pyongyang for its political behavior not long ago," he pointed out.

In actions that might be likened to those of a petulant child, Nagy said, Pyongyang wants to show that it is still important, that it has nuclear weapons and that it cannot be simply ignored.

Nordkorea - Rakete

The UN imposed sanctions on North Korea following its previous missile and nuclear tests

"Sanctions against the North cannot really get much stronger and while China may be able to apply some more pressure, they were not able to intervene in this last test or earlier political shenanigans in Pyongyang, such as the execution of Kim's uncle," Nagy said.

The danger - if a rogue, nuclear-armed state was not already a sufficient one - is that with no points at which to apply pressure, other countries in the region decide that they similarly needed a more potent deterrent to ensure their own national security, believes Meiji Institute's Okumura. "If North Korea is able to deploy a viable nuclear arsenal, then that could change the entire narrative for nations in East Asia," he said.

"The option of going nuclear could become a legitimate part of the national dialogue in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea," he said. "And the consequences of that are clearly serious."

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