Pyongyang tests Obama’s weaknesses

North Korea has looked at US behaviour over China and drawn its own conclusions

Kuo Kai-wen, director of Taiwan's Seismology Center, explains the locations from a monitor showing North Korea's first hydrogen bomb test site (AFP PHOTO / Sam Yeh)
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For a country with so many of its citizens on the edge of survival, North Korea expends a great deal of economic and political effort on developing new versions of nuclear weapons. The latest detonation – if true, its fourth – brings it a step closer to developing nuclear warheads capable of hitting its chief enemy, the United States.

But why now? Last month, the secretive state carried out a submarine-launched ballistic missile test, further demonstrating its growing military capability. Historically, however, nuclear tests and sabre-rattling appear designed to gain the attention of the international community, in particular the US. As Barack Obama enters his last year as president, and with few foreign policy successes to show for his time in office, North Korea may feel emboldened to demonstrate its relevance – and its main way of doing that is provoking the outside world.

But there is another reason, too, and that is that the country believes it can get away with it. The perception in parts of Asia, as indeed in parts of the Middle East, is that Mr Obama is weak, too willing to see diplomacy as both the first and last resort. Just this week, China, the main source of provocations in the region, landed a civilian aircraft on disputed islands in the South China Sea, further inflaming tensions with its neighbours.

China is steadily building up its presence in parts of the South China and East China Seas, large parts of which it claims as its own territory. America’s response, as the traditional guarantor of security in the region, has been muted. The last time the US sent a warship through the disputed regions – the usual way of enforcing “freedom of navigation” – was back in October. Since China has been able to get away with it, the reasoning in Pyongyang may run, we can too.

All of this is worrying, for the Middle East as much as for East Asia. Just in the past week, we have seen in our own region the consequences of rewarding Iran’s bad behaviour with a nuclear deal. Even now, Iran, like the Assad regime in Syria, like Russia in Ukraine, believes it can do what it likes and America will not oppose it. By demonstrating that neither the use of chemical weapons in Syria nor the seizing of parts of another country in Ukraine would be met with an appropriate response, Mr Obama has practically invited his enemies to test his red lines. North Korea has now done so, with explosive results.