While you were sleeping, North Korea was causing a small earthquake on the Korean peninsula. After a gradual buildup over the past few weeks that's seen domestic media in the socialist state saturated with missile-themed iconography, and timed just a couple of days before the anniversary of the late Kim Jong Il's birthday, North Korea announced it has successfully come good on its threats and detonated a third nuclear bomb.
South Korean press were the first to get wind of the development, with reports of the ground shaking in Seoul not long after the detonation, which took place far away in northeastern Hamyong province at 11:57 AM Korean local time. Responsibility for the seismic activity, registering somewhere in the region of a 5.0 magnitude earthquake, was soon claimed by KCNA, North Korea's state propaganda organ. “We can confirm that the test was conducted safely and perfectly at a high level, did not negatively affect the surrounding environment and was conducted with a higher-yield, smaller, lighter atomic device,” they said.
“The test was to defend our country’s safety and sovereignty against the US’s aggressive behavior that infringed upon our republic’s lawful right to peacefully launch a satellite.”
The rest of the world has, predictably, reacted with condemnation, including China, who expressed “deep concern” for the situation. They recently published an editorial in their own state-run Global Post indicating they might reduce aid to North Korea if they carried out the nuclear test. Given that they currently supply around 90 percent of the country's fuel and energy, that's a pretty solid lifeline Kim Jong Un's risking having cut off. However, Yonhap news agency noted that the North issued advanced notice to both China and the United States ahead of the launch, which is basically the geopolitical equivalent of letting your neighbors know you intend to throw a massive house party on Saturday and even though things will probably get messy, you don't really mean any harm. Indeed, it seems North Korea would very much like to pull this nuclear test off without too many international political consequences (good luck with that, guys). By their usual standards, they've been far more open about the launch, and the rhetoric in their language has been notably less bellicose.
Despite the North claiming they've “miniaturized” their warheads, hard evidence suggesting that whatever test they carried out was a real success the North Koreans can be happy with has yet to materialize. It's been estimated that the explosive yield has almost doubled at up to 7 kilotons since their last test in 2009, but really, apart from what the Koreans tell us—no one's positively sure.
If the North is trying not to court too much international attention from this—they even went so far as to release a statement saying the world had jumped to conclusions about its nuclear ambitions a few days ago—it is because the real purpose of their nuclear grandstanding is to prove a point domestically. By fulfilling their nuclear ambitions (or at least looking like they are), Kim Jong Un's government is able to justify and further propagate its ruling ideology, which legitimizes and glorifies the regime in its current form. By launching the nuke so close to Kim Jong Il's birthday, he is honoring the legacy and wisdom of his father, reasserting the perceived threat from America, and providing the country with the national pay off they've all been waiting for after months of nuclear talk rippling through the official channels of North Korean popular culture.
The problem is that the gap between what North Korea is telling its people and what it's telling the world is all too transparent for the international bodies like China that are propping the country up. North Korea may continue its own nuclear song and dance to entertain its citizens while turning a blind eye to the rest of the world for now, but the increasing frustration being expressed by everyone watching from beyond its borders might bubble over. And as for how long they can keep going before someone draws a line and stages an intervention—well that’s anyone’s guess.
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