Are North Korea’s nuclear tests a global concern?

Are North Korea’s nuclear tests a global concern?

North Korea’s fourth successful nuclear test has reignited fears over the nation’s nuclear weapon arsenal and regional stability.  Meanwhile, the world’s eyes have been on Iran and the nuclear deal. Which nation poses a bigger nuclear threat to the world?

On January 6th, 2016, North Korea (also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or the DPRK) claimed to have successfully completed a hydrogen bomb test.

Even though experts aren’t fully convinced that the North Korean regime really did detonate a miniaturized hydrogen bomb, concerns over its expanding nuclear arsenal have placed the country back on the international radar.

The explosion at the Punggye-ri test facility created a magnitude 5.1 earthquake, and marks the fourth underground nuclear test that the hermit kingdom is expected to have successfully conducted.

However, based on the waves, experts claim that the bomb was more likely a boosted fission weapon. Fears remain, though; if the bomb really was a hydrogen bomb, this would be a huge step forward for North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

Almost immediately, the news of the test left US President Obama open to criticism from political opponents, who accused his administration of standing by idly and focusing on sealing a nuclear deal with Iran, while North Korea continued to develop its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Prior to signing the nuclear deal, Iran was a bigger threat to the US because its Middle Eastern neighbors were, and likely still are, unlikely to accept US guarantees of protection, whereas North Korea’s neighbors would support the US in preventing a regional arms race.

Following the deal with Iran, North Korea now poses a bigger threat to the world as it continues to expand its nuclear capacity.

On top of that, for the last few years, it has become clear that the world isn’t fully aware where exactly North Korea’s nuclear sites are, making them impossible to take on. In Iran, the locations of nuclear sites were more clear.

On top of this, the China and North Korea allegiance makes potential US involvement complicated, even though the nuclear test showed some cracks in the relationship between the two countries.

Immediate responses to the test showed that it had more of a geopolitical effect than an instant economic effect. North Korea’s most important ally and largest neighbor, China, immediately responded negatively to the test and publicly opposed it.

In a way, the test was proof that, once again, Pyongyang will ignore all international agreements for its own purposes, regardless of regional security and geopolitical relations, but that China will not unconditionally support all actions taken by the North Korean regime.

Fortunately, it appears that there were fewer direct economic consequences to the economies of surrounding nations than might’ve been expected, as China’s stock market was already volatile prior to the incident and has been battling a relatively lower growth rate for some time.

Nuclear tests are not the biggest concern, as China struggles to keep the world’s second largest economy growing.

North Korea’s southern neighbors’ economy also seemed to be affected very little by the nuclear test, with China’s slowdown being named as a more dangerous threat than North Korea’s nuclear testing. The Bank of Korea confirmed that effects  on South Korea’s economy were limited.

On a geopolitical level effects might be more severe. China is likely to back potential new UN sanctions on North Korea, as they did following the 2013 test, as it has grown closer to South Korea than North Korea in the years since that test.

China also announced that its Environmental Protection Ministry would be monitoring radiation along the border for fear of overspill. 

However, China is unlikely to completely end relations with North Korea, as the nations are important to each other, and remains committed to finding a solution through dialogue rather than enforcing more serious measures.

US policy with regards to both North Korea and Iran indicates that the Obama administration has been focusing on Iran as the major security threat over North Korea.

However, it seems like the biggest threats for the world when it comes to nuclear war are still the US and Russia. Al Jazeera identified that 94% of the 16,000 nuclear weapons still in the world today are possessed by the US and Russia. Out of those, 1,800 are ready to be launched on a few minutes’ notice.

However, mutually assured destruction has restrained either nation from using their weapons so far, even though Moscow has used the threat of nuclear attack on its neighbors to get its way. Most recent examples of this include Crimea and Ukraine.

The real answer lies in time, as many of Russia and the United States’ nuclear weapons are aging and will need to be replaced to remain effective.

Whether or not this will happen is the real question, as tension between Russia and the West is rising up following, amongst other issues, the Ukrainian crisis. Additionally, economic cooperation between South Korea and China is more vital than North Korea’s nuclear testing.

Unless it suddenly develops more dangerous weapons, North Korea will try to a certain extent to remain on China’s good side; after all, it only has one ally in the region.


Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Margaux Schreurs

Margaux lives in Beijing and works as an editor at a Beijing-based magazine and website, and writes on a freelance basis for a wide range of publications throughout the world, mainly focusing on East and Southeast Asian current affairs. She is a London School of Economics and Political Science MSc graduate.