According to many nuclear experts, the detonation of a hydrogen bomb in the Punggye-ri site, in Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea is not a realistic fact.
In fact, the reported 5.1 magnitude quake connected to the detonation is, however, of low intensity for this kind of tests – hence it is not possible that it was caused by a H detonation.
Many experts believe that, for North Korea, the announcement of the hydrogen bomb detonation is a clear falsehood or it is an improvement – or possibly an enhancement – of the now classic North Korean nuclear weapons.
It is worth noting that China protested formally, with specific reference to the nuclear fallout of the test, and that Pungyye-ri is less than a hundred kilometres away from the Chinese border. China maintained it would support any UN action, along with South Korea, which has already requested it in the framework of the Security Council.
It is also worth noting that Kim Jong-Un has never visited the People’s Republic of China, while in October 2015 Liu Yunshan, a CCP leader – the first in four years – went to Pyongyang on the occasion of the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean Workers’ Party. Furthermore, on that same occasion, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping sent a telegram of congratulations for the 70th anniversary of the Party ruling in North Korea.
Liu is a member of the CCP Standing Committee of the Politburo, but the relations between the two countries have grown cold especially after Kim executing his uncle Jang Song-Taek, who was a well-known and stable point of reference for Communist China.
It is worth recalling that, for Kim Jong-Un, the nuclear issue is not just a “matter of image” – just to put it in Western terminology.
The strategic connection can be identified in the system of the Six Party Talks on the Korean nuclear program, which had begun officially in 2003, and were later aimed at the almost complete scrapping of the North Korean nuclear potential. Those Talks included the United States, China, South Korea, obviously North Korea, Japan and the Russian Federation.
In 2009 North Korea decided to put an end to those negotiations and the significant fact is that, in 2012, Kim Jong-Un announced that North Korea would cease nuclear tests and accept the IAEA inspections if the United States supplied food to the country.
The subsequent year China tried to revive the Six Party Talks by sending a representative to North Korea, thus creating the opportunity for a new round of negotiations at informal level.
On the contrary, the United States want North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program before resuming the Talks and then re-discuss all the bilateral and multilateral issues at stake.
Hence we are approaching the strategic core of the issue: Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea wants to reopen a new phase of its international relations, also with this H-type “test”, which will probably be the result of a miniaturization of “traditional” nuclear charges for North Korea.
China is no longer a reliable partner for Kim Jong-Un. In 2015, for example, a Korean band had to leave the Chinese territory without being able to play – and these are very important signs in the Communist international ritual.
Nevertheless, again in 2013, China opened a new free economic zone, known as Gomenvan, near Dandong.
This means that, for China, North Korea is still a strategic asset.
But not so much as to necessarily support it to the point of “losing face” at international level and favouring – in a period of reduced GDP growth – a “sister” country which, however, has always shown its willingness to play alone.
In short, North Korea’s strategic equation is now clear and we can see it from different viewpoints: a) North Korea wants to deal directly with the United States, as it has often shown it wished to do.
Moreover, b) North Korea’s geopolitical axis is a direct mediation with the United States, thus estranging China, which otherwise would absorb North Korea in its networks of interests with the United States, by de facto colonizing it. Above all, however, for the North Korean regime the issue lies in removing Japan from negotiations and from any sphere of influence over North Korea.
Many years ago, Robert Gallucci – a dear friend that I still miss – succeeded in understanding the North Korean geopolitical axis and operated consequently within his US administration. We talked passionately about it in Paris until three o’clock in the morning.
If the United States could create a link with North Korea, without involving but only informing China; if the United States succeeded in excluding but not weakening Japan, without worsening the already complex situation in this country, and if these signs could be correctly understood in North Korea, this would really be the beginning of North Korea’s peaceful integration into the mainstream of Asian nations.
For China, North Korea is an unavoidable “buffer zone” – hence the coldness between China and North Korea will never be completely solved or overcome.
Therefore signs shall be given to North Korea that this process will lead to a dual result: 1) to accept a reduced nuclear arsenal which, however, has already been made useless due to the great potential of North Korean chemical weapons deployed on missile carriers and 2) to support a domestic economic evolution which does not affect the current power system.
It is an activity of great diplomatic and intelligence art, which is no longer used today.
Giancarlo Elia Valori (@GEliaValori)
Honorable of the Académie des Sciences of the Institut de France.