By Heather Williams, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Heather Williams is a research fellow in international security at Chatham House in London. The views expressed are her own.
Whether the latest North Korean nuclear test destabilizes Northeast Asia in the short-term depends on how it is handled within the U.N. Security Council. The major players in the region have made stability a priority, and are likely to continue to do so. And certainly, if stability is defined as the absence of conflict or risk of immediate conflict, all signs suggest the region will indeed remain stable. After all, China’s continued economic growth is dependent on regional stability, South Korea and Japan are terrified of war with nuclear-armed North Korea, and the United States is anxious about becoming embroiled in another regime change.
But regional players will likely still have to take some sort of action against a belligerent and increasingly aggressive North Korea if there is to be a meaningful chance of maintaining stability in the long term. The hard part, though, is balancing short-term and long-term gains.
The risk for destabilization could come in two forms. First, from North Korea itself. Pyongyang is growing confident in its technological prowess and may attempt an even more provocative role in the region. Although Pyongyang primarily cares about the survival of the Kim dynasty, recent actions suggest that keeping the military happy within the country is more important than the risks run through provoking its neighbors and Chinese benefactor.
Nuclear weapons are North Korea’s primary bargaining chip, and that they should play that chip now suggests some kind of internal struggle within Pyongyang. In addition, while in the past China played a restraining role with North Korea, the latest test suggests a shift in this dynamic. Prior to the test, China strongly and publicly urged North Korea not to test, threatened to cut food aid if a test was conducted, and has already summoned a North Korean representative to Beijing.
Second, the international response may either intentionally or unintentionally spark a military conflict on the Korean peninsula or the complete economic and political collapse of North Korea. For example, direct provocation or attacks may prompt North Korea to retaliate against South Korea and Japan; or additional sanctions may further undermine the Kim regime and lead to its collapse for internal reasons. It is a strategic paradox.
The international community is therefore running out of tools. There are few options left for sanctions, and additional penalties would run the risk of causing further suffering to the North Korean people and provoking a military conflict. Leaders in Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington may have to decide between the risks of destabilization over the short-term and the potential long-term gains of rolling back Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The path of least resistance may not necessarily be the most stable over the long-run. In addition to this superficial regional stability, continued North Korean testing and nuclear advancement risks the stability and credibility of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
Unity of response is key to counter-balancing these destabilizing pressures, wherever they may arise. A strong and perhaps innovative Western response – whether that be diplomatic or a creative military approach – stands the greatest chance of success, as long as more than short-term factors are taken into account.
And that latter option would also certainly send a loud message to Tehran.