North Korea has much hastened its nuclear and missile development this year. It conducted its 5th nuclear weapons test on September 9, after its 4th nuclear test on January 6 this year.
As expected, the following cycle is being put in motion now. First, the UN Security Council (UNSC) will have its closed door consultation to engineer a new punitive resolution. The US and China will likely fight on what to, or not to, include in the new sanctions list. After the sanctions are approved for a while, probably just for few months, North Korea will set up another nuclear or missile test. Then China and the US will accuse each other again, with China saying that it is US hostility that has led to North Korea’s latest test, and the US charging China for not fully honoring previous UNSC resolutions.
North Korea knows that the world is unfair, as all the five permanent (P5) members on the UNSC have nuclear weapons, while the rest of the world cannot. Or wait a minute, a few others can also have. See, the US has accepted Israel to have nuclear weapons. America has also allowed India to have nuclear weapons. And China may have tolerated Pakistan for having nuclear weapons. Given these, why can’t North Korea also have nukes?
North Korea is properly informed of the fact that China and the US don’t get along well, so there is room for it to tap into. Look, the US knew that India would not bend on unilateral nuclear sanctions, as pushing too much pressure on India would only benefit China. Then the US waived India from being sanctioned by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a US-led nuclear technology cartel, for cooperation on civilian nuclear power. Lately the US has even supported India to join the NSG as a full member. By partnering a non-NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons) country that has acquired nuclear weapons, the US supports India to boost its international standing, which is helpful for India in its power juggling with Beijing.
Therefore, there is no such thing that one cannot develop nuclear weapons. What matters is that if one has a value in power politics, things could be different. North Korea believes that it has such a value.
Pyongyang believes that American realism will eventually accommodate a nuclear North Korea.
Because North Korea has been armed with nuclear weapons, it will be more or less free from military threats. It has acquired its own nuclear deterrent. Pyongyang believes that American realism will eventually accommodate a nuclear North Korea. President Barack Obama has compromised with Cuba after the US placed sanctions on Havana for half a century. In terms of nuclear development, the US has also compromised with India, Pakistan, and recently Iran. It is very unlikely that the US would never accept the reality of a nuclear North Korea. The question is when such a change of US policy will happen. A probable bet is after President Trump is sworn into the White House.
North Korea understands that as long as the US adjusts its position, China will quickly follow suit, as it did vis-à-vis India. China used to join the US and other P5 members in denouncing India for its nuclear weapons tests in 1998. However, after the 9/11 attack, the US lifted its sanctions on India and Pakistan over their nuclear testing, without consulting with China. The US needs both New Delhi and Islamabad to shape its global anti-terror coalition. Given the US change, China has no other choice but to downplay the nuclear issue for its relations with India. It is likely that China will not push North Korea towards the US if the latter moderates its relations with Pyongyang.
At this stage, it is already too late to reverse North Korea’s nuclear trajectory, even if China and the US would best cooperate to stop Pyongyang’s will. Nevertheless, the rift between Beijing and Washington is increasing, given the US’ Asia Pacific rebalancing in general, and the deployment of THAAD in South Korea in particular. Seeing that the UNSC took two months to make Resolution 2270, the leadership in North Korea must conclude that this is the perfect time to conduct more tests.
Expect North Korea to conduct another nuclear blast anytime soon.