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Pyongyang's new belligerence

Julian Ryall, TokyoSeptember 16, 2015

The US, China and South Korea have warned Pyongyang against "provocations," after the regime said it restarted operations at its nuclear complex. What does North Korea aim to achieve? Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

Nordkorea Kim Jong Un Rede vor Offizieren
Image: Reuters/KCNA

In its latest bout of belligerence and bombast, state media on Tuesday, September 15 trumpeted that North Korea had put its Yongbyon atomic plant back into "full operations" and warned that it now has the ability to strike the United States with its nuclear weapons "at any time."

To add further fuel to the fire, the regime of Kim Jong Un announced that it reserves the "legitimate right of a sovereign state" to carry out the launch of a rocket to put a satellite into orbit. While Pyongyang insists such launches are designed for the peaceful exploitation of space, the rest of the world considers them to be thinly-disguised tests of long-range ballistic missiles, which utilize near-identical technology.

The international reaction has been swift and to the point. So often apart on the world's most pressing issues, the United States, the European Union, China, South Korea and Japan all spoke with one voice in this regard: Pyongyang must not defy international opinion and the United Nations Security Council.

China - once North Korea's closest ally - was perhaps the strongest in its condemnation of Pyongyang's plans, demanding that the regime halt its preparations for a rocket launch, adding that it hopes that Pyongyang will "act with caution and refrain from taking actions that will elevate tensions."

Adhere to UN resolutions

In a joint statement in Seoul, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye called on the North to adhere to UN resolutions and halt its missile and nuclear weapons programs.

Yongbyon Atomanlage Nordkorea 2008
Restarting the Yongbyon nuclear plant is part of the North's strategy to force its opponents to the negotiating table, say expertsImage: Getty Images

Washington's warning was more veiled with a spokesman for the State Department stating that it "would be a mistake for North Korea to once again embark on the kind of threatening behaviors and provocations that led to international sanctions in the first place."

Unfortunately, analysts believe, North Korea may have painted itself into a corner by expressing the intention to launch a rocket, widely expected to coincide with the 70th anniversary on October 10 of the founding of the Workers' Party. Failing to do so could be interpreted as Kim giving in to international pressure.

"I think the timing of these announcements has to be seen in the broader framework of what happened in China recently, when President Xi Jinping held personal talks with his Korean counterpart Park," said Stephen Nagy, an assistant professor in the department of politics and international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University, told DW.

Beijing dissatisfied

"This shows the depth of dissatisfaction in Beijing with its former ally, North Korea, and was a way for Beijing to exert pressure on Pyongyang," he said. The North's response, however, is to ratchet up the tensions in the sort of brinkmanship that has served it well in the past.

"The nuclear weapons are not the source of the North's political leverage," Nagy said. "Its power lies in conventional weapons and a one million-strong army on the border with South Korea and just a few kilometers north of Seoul."

The North's strategy - of which restarting the Yongbyon nuclear plant and threatening missile launches are a key component - is to force its enemies to the negotiating table and to wring concessions out of them, say experts.

North Korea desperately needs fuel, food aid and an easing of restrictions placed on imports over the land border with China, in particular. And Beijing may comply, albeit grudgingly and with one eye on domestic issues, Nagy pointed out.

"There are a lot of ethnic Koreans in north-east China and Beijing does not want North Korea to be destabilized or for the regime there to collapse as it would have a serious impact on the social and political situation in China," he said. "For that reason, I believe Beijing will attempt to cool tensions and once again provide food aid or fuel."

Building power base

Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, says the recent aggressiveness of North Korea may be an indication that Kim Jong Un is trying to shore up his power base.

"There will be big celebrations in the North next month to mark the anniversary of the founding party and he needs to raise the morale of the people," Kotani told DW. "The best way of doing that is to be assertive in the regime's announcements and behavior to rally the people around him."

It is very possible that the schism with China has not gone down well with many in the corridors of power in Pyongyang, Kotani said, adding that he believes it is "very likely" that the North will again defy international pressure to launch a rocket next month. "It is also possible that they will follow that up with another underground nuclear test," he said. "It's a tried-and-tested policy of brinkmanship designed to win direct talks with the US."

Forcing the US to the negotiating table would be portrayed as a great victory for North Korea. But there are no indications yet that Washington is even contemplating this idea.