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Opinion

Opinion: China will have to thwart Kim's plans

The North Korean regime wants to strengthen its negotiating position by claiming to have tested a hydrogen bomb. It is now up to Beijing to use its clout to rein in its unpredictable neighbor, says DW's Alexander Freund.

As if there weren't already enough crises around the world, an unpredictable despotic regime has now claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb. While the concerns the announcement sparked among North Korea's neighbors and the sharp international criticism it drew are justified, the nuclear test itself was not entirely surprising.

It was a long time in the coming that the young dictator Kim Jong Un would sooner or later attempt to grab the global spotlight with a bombshell. Kim spent the first few years of his rule consolidating his position inside the country; by pursuing potential adversaries with ruthless brutality. At the same time, he built amusement parks and water parks benefiting only a small, privileged minority of the nation's impoverished population.

But that obviously did not suffice. This is why just two days before his birthday, Kim wanted to display his strength to both his own military as well as the outside world. The H-bomb claim is merely an attempt to force world powers to woo Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. Following the test, the Communist regime's mouthpiece declared that the nation had "proudly joined the advanced ranks of nuclear weapons states."

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DW's Alexander Freund

Kim could attain success

It will take time before it's reliably confirmed whether North Korea really carried out a hydrogen bomb test. The East Asian nation's claims in 2006 that it had detonated an atomic bomb for the first time were met with a lot of skepticism. Even three years later, many doubts were raised about the veracity of Pyongyang's claims to have carried out a second nuclear test.

But the bomb that North Korea blasted underground in 2013 was huge and much stronger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Still, this would be nothing compared to the destructive power of a hydrogen bomb. However, it still remains to be seen whether an isolated country that lags behind other nations in almost all technological areas is really capable of developing such weapons.

Nonetheless, it's likely that Kim's clumsy test will be successful, at least to some degree. The UN Security Council will condemn the nuclear test and possibly impose even tougher sanctions. The US, in turn, will likely demonstrate its military support of Japan and South Korea by displaying its naval strength.

And the six-party talks between the two Koreas, Japan, China, Russia and the US will probably resume in the mid-term. In fact, during the last round of talks, these countries were seemingly able to talk some sense into North Korea. In return, Pyongyang got what it desperately needed: economic aid. Should this once again be the case, then Kim's plan would prove successful.

Breaking the cycle of provocations

But there is also hope that this ritual will end following Pyongyang's latest provocations. The times have changed. In the US, a hesitant President Barack Obama is following a very cautious foreign policy, and seems unable to talk sense into gun fanatics in his country despite making emotional appeals.

At the same time, Japan's conservative government is no longer willing to solve problems through checkbook diplomacy alone. South Korea has grown closer to China, and tensions with Japan have also eased.

China, in turn, is being governed by a strong leader, who is now determined to project Chinese power abroad, following the country's remarkable economic development. This is precisely why the new superpower should not allow its North Korean ally to stir trouble. Pyongyang has repeatedly snubbed the host of the six-party talks, resulting in negotiations stalling since 2009. China's loss of face has been considerable.

If China truly wants to underscore its foreign policy claims, then it should focus on keeping North Korea in its place, rather than on building military installations on artificial islands in the South China Sea. China's strong leader could easily exert his leverage on North Korea. If Beijing were to cut off its economic support for the Kim dynasty, then the North Korean regime would have to given in. Actions must now follow Beijing's sharp criticism of Pyongyang.

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