Here's a short essay on the recent North Korean nuclear test... looking at regional reactions, most specifically at the Japanese options.
The test, conducted in defiance of regional and global concerns, has been criticised by the UN, US, Japan and South Korea. The test has clearly upped the ante in the neighbourhood with Japan and South Korea raising the military alert levels to be prepared for any eventuality. The test raises a lot of questions: How does this affect the regional threat matrix? How would countries like Japan and South Korea respond? The timing of the test, on the day of President Obama's State of the Union address, is curious, especially in the backdrop of the North Korean state media agency statement pointing to the US as one of the reasons why they have conducted the test.
North Korea conducted a nuclear test for the third time on February 12, sparking criticism from the region and beyond. According to Asahi Shimbun, the state media agency, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) stated that the test was conducted in a safe manner and this is aimed at coping with "outrageous" US hostility that "violently" undermines the North Korea's peaceful, sovereign rights to launch satellites. The agency went on to say that the test was packed with more explosive power and a "miniaturized" and "lighter" nuclear bomb. If these reports are true, Pyongyang has progressed in mastering the complex and complicated technology involved making the nuclear warhead small enough to fit into its missiles. The missile tests last December exhibited the increased range of new North Korean missiles, raising concerns in the region and beyond. The nuclear test also raised the suspicion about whether North Korea has made the switch from plutonium to uranium for its nuclear weapons. Japanese news media point out that North Korea has abundant deposits of uranium, and it is far simpler to enrich uranium in centrifuges than to reprocess plutonium.
Second, what is the rationale from the North Korean point of view? The new leadership in Pyongyang under Kim Jong Un could be trying to assert power and buy credibility through these tests. The power transition in Pyongyang has not exactly been smooth and there is believed to be infighting among multiple power centers. This test may be a reflection of the fact that King Jong Un is not in control of the affairs in Pyongyang.
Third, since North Korea has tested twice before, how significant is this in international political terms? Is North Korea testing again signify that the region did not respond in sufficiently serious ways to the first two Pyongyang tests? Japan, for instance, had contemplated serious responses, including possibly pre-emptive strikes as well as revisiting Tokyo's own nuclear options in each of the past crises. However, Tokyo has not done anything as yet, for a variety of reasons. These options could seriously impact the US-Japan security alliance. In addition, Japanese public opinion on nuclear weapons has remained uncertain. While a few right-wing politicians have called for exercising these options, the public continues to be wary of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Fukushima notwithstanding, this is changing. The very fact that there is an open debate in Japan today along these lines says a lot about the future prospects of nuclear weapons in Japan. In Japan, those who have favoured these options have found justifications, tracing debates way back to 1956 when Prime Minister Hatoyama stated, "It is not an objective of the Constitution to oblige us to sit and wait to perish."
Japan has possibly looked at these options for two reasons. One, the continuing concerns about the non-proliferation regime and its effectiveness in tackling issues such as North Korea and Iran. Japan has reasons to believe that North Korea's nuclear and missile-related issues cannot be sorted out through international arms control agreements. While the North Korean threat is progressing, Japan is not certain about the effectiveness of international agreements to curb the North Korean threat.
Circumstances may be different today with an Abe administration, a more hardline government, in control in Japan. However, is Tokyo in a better position as far as its response options are concerned? Amendment to the Japanese Constitution and changing Article 9 is often talked about. This will be a significant boost to strengthen Japan's military options. Nevertheless, it is too early to say with certainty how Japan will respond to the changing threat dynamics.
The advancements that Pyongyang has made in terms of miniaturization of the device may be significant particularly in the backdrop of long-range delivery vehicles. With Pyongyang having tested the longer-range missiles in recent months, threat to even the United States has increased, which is reflected in Obama's reactions to the test. The Obama administration, unlike its milder response following the missile test, sounded much more alarmed. Secretary Panetta, for instance, has said, "We just saw what North Korea has done in these last few weeks, a missile test and now a nuclear test. They represent a serious threat to the United States of America, and we've got to be prepared to deal with that." This brings the question about the US response. Beyond the rhetoric, how differently will the US respond? Does the Obama Administration see the nuclear non-proliferation regime as an appropriate vehicle to bring on the pressure on Pyongyang?
The test also raises questions about the relevance of the six-party talks. So far, it appears that the talks have not fructified. The talks stalled in 2009 when North Korea decided to pull out following a failed satellite launch. This brings out into the open also the Chinese role in the six party talks. Beijing has remained the sole friend and benefactor to North Korea, extending the crucial economic, political and moral support. While there has been criticism that China has not been proactive in condemning Pyongyang's aggressive actions, the other side of the story may be as to how much of a leeway does China really have on North Korea to stop such posturing. There have been reasons to believe that China may have reached a point of frustration, as some of the WikiLeaks reports suggested.
In conclusion, while all the major players understand the challenges, they find themselves uniquely constrained in responding to North Korea.