Six days after fireworks around the world ushered in the New Year, a mighty blast setting off strong tremors equivalent to a seismic activity of 5.1 on the Richter scale, perhaps, foretold that the year may be one of chaos and tension.
North Korea on January 6 announced it had successfully carried out its first hydrogen bomb test, triggering worldwide condemnation and concern over security not only in the Korean peninsula but also the entire Pacific region, which includes the United States’ west coast. Notwithstanding the debate whether the bomb was really a hydrogen bomb, the fact remains that the maverick regime run by an eccentric leader is becoming more powerful, if not more erratic with each passing year. Kim Jong-un’s ability to cause mayhem in the neighbourhood and elsewhere is on the increase.
But it is also a fact that the sanctions-hit North Korea is one of the world’s poorest countries and its nuclear programme comes at great cost to the social welfare of millions of people living in abject poverty.
Nuclear weapons research, production, maintenance and delivery systems cost billions of dollars. Although it is impossible to make an accurate calculation given the secrecy surrounding North Korea’s nuclear programme, analysts in South Korea say Pyongyang has been spending nearly US$ 700 million or more a year on its nuclear programme. Although compared with US$ 62 billion the United States spends on nuclear weapons each year or even Pakistan’s US$ 2.2 billion annual nuclear budget, what North Korea spends is low. But still it is a huge sum, especially if we add the opportunity cost in terms of social welfare.
Instead of spending this money on the nuclear programme, North Korea, a country whose economy is worth just US$ 28.4 billion –a little more than one third of Sri Lanka’s US$ 81 billion worth economy -- should have spent this money on poverty alleviation. It was only last year that Kim Jong-un, in a paper he authored, said he “cannot sleep” because of worry over his people’s poverty. The North Korean news agency KCNA quoted the young leader as saying that he lamented that his people have “never enjoyed an abundant life”.
But analysts say much of the money that North Korea needs to improve its people’s living standards and its nuclear weapons programme comes not from Kim Jong-un’s sunshine agriculture projects or luxury skiing resorts, but from nefarious or questionable deals.
The irony is that the nuclear programme is not only a money guzzler but also a money spinner. North Korea earns millions of dollars by secretly sharing its nuclear and missile technology with states secretly developing missiles and nuclear technology. According to the Washington-based Arms Control Association, North Korea has been a key supplier of missiles and missile technology to countries in the developing world, particularly in politically unstable regions such as the Middle East and South Asia. Such transfers are believed to be one of Pyongyang’s primary sources of hard currency, ACA says.
It is also alleged that North Korea earns money by selling weapons to terrorist groups. Among its customers, according to some reports, were the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which Sri Lanka’s military defeated in 2009.
Another allegation is that North Korea earns its hard currency to sustain its nuclear programme also through counterfeiting international currencies, especially the US dollar. North Korea watchers also say that Pyongyang also finds money for the nuclear programme by taxing the players in the unofficial market economy which the pseudo-communist regime has allowed to operate.
Another key source of income is exports to neighboring China. It is said that North Korea earns US$ 1 billion from mineral exports to China, which is not only North Korea’s main trading partner but also its key defender and ally, especially in view of the growing tensions over territorial disputes Beijing is embroiled in with its neighbours. This takes the debate over North Korea’s nuclear weapons to the geo-strategic plane.
There is little that the US can do to force North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme. True, Iran succumbed to tough sanctions imposed by the US and its Western allies and agreed to scale down its nuclear programme. But North Korea has not been shaken by the sanctions. In the face of UN Security Council moves this week to impose tougher sanctions, a defiant North Korea claimed that its successful nuclear bomb test showed that it could now “wipe out” the United States.
Although China has joined the worldwide chorus in condemning North Korea’s January 6 nuclear test, the fourth such test, Chinese academics blamed the US for the increased tension in the Korean peninsula.
“Washington has not implemented the 1990 Agreed Framework with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) and has not fulfilled its commitment to providing aid to the DPRK,” Lv Chao, a Chinese social scientist, told Xinhua, China’s official news agency.
He pointed out that the nuclear test was apparently carried out to grab the US’s attention, and the statement issued afterwards by Pyongyang addressed Washington directly.
Ling Shengli, secretary-general of the International Security Study Center at the China Foreign Affairs University, went further, saying economic sanctions imposed on the DPRK prompted the country to act arbitrarily and take a chance in developing nuclear weapons.
They have a point. Instead of imposing tougher sanctions in the belief that they would work just as they worked with Iran, the United States should engage North Korea. Pyongyang’s official policy since 2003 has been that it would abandon its nuclear programme only if the United States abandons its hostile policies toward North Korea.
As tensions increased in the Korean peninsula, China has invited South Korea and the United States for urgent talks. In 2009, North Korea withdrew from the previous round of international talks – also known as the six-party talks since it involved the two Koreas, the US, Russia, China and Japan -- after accusing Washington of failing to fulfil its promises.
Meanwhile, others believe that the present crisis has given the US one more excuse to strengthen its military presence in the region and move more weapons and strategic assets to the troublespot under its Pivot-to-Asia policy, which is nothing but a strategy to check China. So it’s all a vicious circle. Watch out for more tension in the Asia Pacific region in 2016.