North Korea: Kim Jong-il plays the nuclear card to seek attention

The detonation of a North Korean nuclear bomb is an attempt to dictate the future of the Korean peninsula on its own terms.


After several weeks of speculation and a public statement of intent by the North Korean regime last week on the anniversary of South Korea’s foundation, the DPRK has detonated a low-yield nuclear device in its Mountainous North East region, close to its borders with China and Russia. This brazen bout of attention-seeking means that Kim Jong-il has exhausted his room for manoeuvre and the DPRK will face a new phase of isolation by the international community. The deep freeze on the Korean peninsula has moved closer to becoming a hot confrontation with a mafia-like family regime now a member of the exclusive nuclear club.

Worryingly, this test has come in the immediate wake of the DPRK’s announcement of intention to test a nuclear device, suggesting that Kim Jong-il is more desperate for attention than previously imagined. If this is so, it could be that Kim perceives his leadership to be in question, creating a tinder box situation across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the no man’s land separating the massed troops of North and South Korea and the line splitting the peninsula in half.

The Six Party Talks (6PT) framework, designed to resolve simmering tension in the Korean peninsular with member states including North and South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the United States are now officially dead. It seems that the West has overestimated China’s ability to rein in the Great Leader since for the first time, China has expressed anger towards Kim’s actions. The test marks a departure from the DPRK’s reliance on strategic ambiguity and represents a direct attempt to up the ante in the face of US refusal to engage in bilateral discussions with North Korea. Kim has managed to manipulate deftly all members of the 6PT.

From Kim’s point of view, the test is a progression towards a fully blown nuclear deterrent against the United States and its ally Japan and is an attempt to dictate the future of the Korean peninsula on his own terms. Of more immediate concern is the now apparently personal nature of Kim’s stand-off with the United States, who managed to freeze his family assets held offshore in Macau earlier this year. North Korea’s missile tests were conducted on  4 July and it seems Kim perceives George Bush’s Administration to have purposely sabotaged the bilateral negotiations established under Clinton. Kim now wishes to monopolize George Bush’s unpopularity in the Muslim world to justify his actions. This will likely entail more urgency to the nuclear dilemma in Iran. If the stand-off has become a truly personal vendetta then the Korean peninsula, like the Middle East, has become a very volatile part of the world.

By Alexander Neill, Head of Asia Programme, RUSI

 The views and comments offered here do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute


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