Nuclear weapons tend to trump all other considerations, especially when one is detonated. Although the United States, China, and Russia responded to North Korea’s latest nuclear weapon test with messages of condemnation, policymakers continue to lack the novel solutions and cooperation needed to address a growing nuclear threat. For the US and its allies, China’s influence over the North and Russia’s improved relations with Pyongyang offer the best chance; however, China and Russia will be weary of becoming a target for North Korea.
In proclaiming the North’s alleged ability to build a miniaturized hydrogen bomb capable of being mounted to a ballistic missile, the world knows its leadership either feels the need to lie or believes its scientists can actually build an H-bomb. As the magnitude of the latest detonation is nearly equal to the 2013 test, it appears the North’s claims are baseless. At best, the use of a hydrogen isotope may allow North Korean scientists to claim they have technically made a “hydrogen bomb.” While good news, it suggests Kim Jong-Un, who should be addressed in a respectful way, is overconfident in his war machine’s ability to conquer the world.
From the Clinton to the Bush to the Obama Administration, the US and its allies have tried to address North Korea’s nuclear ambitions through cycles of engagement and disengagement. Not only have US efforts failed to prevent the nuclearization of North Korea, the North has used the process to solicit billions in foreign aid. In other words, the US has no real options outside of bombing the North or relying on others to force a diplomatic resolution. Unfortunately, Russia and China may likely see increased cooperation with Pyongyang as far more advantageous.
The psychology of the rogue nation is that of an insecure, paranoid person who becomes increasingly aggressive and domineering when he feels more confident. Where Pyongyang has flirted with improved US relations over the last couple of years to counter Chinese influence, its announcement following the latest nuclear test made clear that the United States is a target of North Korea. Where Pyongyang was likely attempting to intimidate the US to attract increased engagement, it is widely believed that the North was also sending Beijing a message. Part of that message is a warning to Beijing that North Korea is willing to target China.
Frankly, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is a far more pressing threat to China and Russia than the United States. As such, China has a choice to make. If it attempts to punish the North as it has done in the past, Kim Jong-Un, who shares a similar mentality as Russian President Vladimir Putin, is likely to lash out against China instead of capitulating. If it strengthens ties with the North, China could force the US to react while ignoring the problem will assuredly make it worse. For Russia’s part, it has little leverage it can use to coerce Pyongyang into relinquishing its nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, Putin can play to the Western and North Korean interests to regain Western favor and Pyongyang’s military support.
Unfortunately, Russian hostility, which is exemplified by the Ukraine Crisis, continues to be an imminent threat to the US and Europe while Chinese aggression, which is exemplified by the South China Sea Crisis, continues to be an imminent threat to the US and Asia. These realities cannot be ignored. Just as the US must criticize friends, such as Saudi Arabia and India for their wrongs in order to help resolve issues that fester and undermine stability, the US must do the same with Russia and China. At the same time, the US, Russia, China, and all other interested parties must be willing to support efforts to tackle common interests like the nuclear threat of a psychologically unstable North Korea.
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