Chicago Tribune: North Korea tests the world with its latest nuclear detonation

JAN. 7, 2016 — The earth rumbled beneath the Korean peninsula Tuesday evening, signaling an underground nuclear test by rogue nation North Korea. Pyongyang claimed to have set off its first hydrogen bomb, but experts looking at seismographs saw evidence of a much smaller explosion — likely the country’s fourth atomic bomb test since 2006. Possibly, it was an atom bomb boosted by additional nuclear material.

H-bomb or A-bomb, the impact is clear: a nasty reminder that one of the world’s most isolated regimes poses a great danger.

There’s a clockwork-like predictability to North Korea’s belligerence and brinkmanship: Every so often — just when the world seems fully focused on other crises — the North ratchets up tension by testing a bomb or ballistic missile.

There’s a frightening pattern to the world’s response too, which began again Wednesday: condemnations followed by threats of more sanctions, though the North already is thoroughly sanctioned. Then, expect an uncomfortable shrug because past negotiations failed and war is not an option against a nuclear-armed country that values the survival of its regime and not much else.

Within weeks, the world probably moves on, and so will North Korea, on its march to perfecting weapons of mass destruction.

So what do we have to show for decades of patience with North Korea? Um, four nuclear tests.

About that shrug. The Obama administration actually has a name for it: “strategic patience.” The phrase was first used by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009. The idea is to wait out the North, using subtle pressure to coax it back to the negotiating table to strike a grand bargain on its nuclear program.

So what do we have to show for decades of patience with North Korea? Um, four nuclear tests. And some ballistic missile tests too, putting the North further along the path to its presumed goal of testing nuclear-armed missiles capable of striking the United States.

This is the problem with endless patience and wandering attention. A wily foe such as North Korea will not waste its opportunity to cause trouble.

About that wily foe: Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s third-generation leader, shows no more interest than his father or grandfather in changing North Korea’s paranoid approach. He uses threats and bluster to keep the outside world off balance. At home, his regime keeps the population under absolute control, in near complete isolation, allowing the government to spin a fantasy about North Korea as a worker’s paradise bravely facing down enemies.

In North Korea’s alternate reality, testing an “H-bomb of justice” is needed to fend off “a gang of cruel robbers” — yes, the United States. A North Korea statement Wednesday justifying the nuke test was filled with such flourishes: “Nothing is more foolish than dropping a hunting gun before herds of ferocious wolves,” it said.

What to do? Waiting around for North Korea to change is folly. The country, bumping along in poverty and always at risk of famine, has an apparently limitless capacity to endure hardship. North Koreans don’t know any better. The Kim family designed their country that way.

There is one untapped vulnerability. Most of North Korea’s imports, including food and energy, come from China. A Congressional Research Service report said it plainly: Food and energy aid from China is “an essential lifeline for the regime.”

China’s main worry is preventing the collapse of North Korea, which could cause a refugee crisis on China’s border. Just as bad, from China’s vantage point, would be for the North to be absorbed by South Korea, a key American ally.

Still, there are signs Beijing may be frustrated with Kim Jong Un. The Chinese government protested the nuclear test as loudly as the U.S., and China’s President Xi Jinping has never met Kim, seemingly a snub. Beijing knows that the more Kim stirs up trouble, the more active the U.S. will get in defending the Pacific, tightening ties along the way with South Korea and Japan. That threatens to hem in China.

Relying on China to protect American interests shouldn’t be at the top of anyone’s New Year’s resolution list, but with four nuclear tests in the bag, it’s time for the U.S. to replace “strategic patience” with some urgency. Let’s find out if China is ready to push North Korea into serious talks. Meanwhile, the U.S. should put additional pressure on North Korea through a greater show of military force in the Pacific.

North Korea’s menacing behavior is a reminder of why the U.S. has to demand strict adherence from Iran on its nuclear deal. The negotiators of that deal seemed to learn something from the failed nuclear agreement with North Korea reached by Bill Clinton in 1994. But that lesson will be lost if the U.S., as it seems to be doing so far, is willing to let Iran duck and dodge.

Nor can the U.S. allow other issues — including Iran — to distract from the threat of nuclear North Korea. The next bomb Pyongyang detonates in a test could be big enough to truly frighten the world, or small enough to place on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

By Chicago Tribune