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North Korea versus the world – A game of cat and mouse

14 February 2013

On 11 February 2013, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) conducted its third and thus far most powerful detonation of a nuclear device in the Northeast of the country. In an emergency meeting, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) issued a statement, approved by all 15 member nations including North Korea’s long-standing ally China, condemning Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test. High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, similarly responded by urging “the DPRK to refrain from further provocative actions” and “to abandon its nuclear weapons programme, including its uranium enrichment programme, in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner”.

North Korea's nuclear programme has been a source of great concern for the international community for more than 20 years. It has been exactly one decade since Pyongyang openly affirmed its interest in a nuclear program, withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in January 2003. After years of wrangling over the delivery of American aid, the conflict culminated in October 2006 when the DPRK announced that it had carried out an underground nuclear explosion, leading the UNSC to impose military and economic sanctions. Following years of on-off negotiations within the framework of the Six-Party Talks, North Korea agreed in February 2007 to shut down its main nuclear reactor in return for aid and diplomatic concessions. Negotiations stalled, however, in 2009 as Pyongyang walked out of international talks and carried out its second underground nuclear test. As a response, the UNSC again issued a resolution condemning the test and tightened the existing sanctions, which resulted in Kim Jong Il’s announcement to resume nuclear negotiations. The conflict re-intensified on 12 December 2012 when the DPRK successfully launched a rocket and sent a satellite into orbit, which is believed to have been a missile launch. The UNSC then again, adopted a resolution on 23 January condemning the North Korean rocket launch and expanding existing sanctions.

In the early hours of 12 February 2013, unusual seismic activity was detected around a remote area in the East of the DPRK, near the town of Kilju, leading to conjectures of a third nuclear test. The North Korean state news agency KCNA confirmed the assumption shortly thereafter by stating “the nuclear test was carried out at a high level in a safe and perfect manner using a miniaturised and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously". The reference to a “miniaturised" device raises concerns among Asian as well as Western experts, as it constitutes one more indication suggesting that Pyongyang's ultimate aim is to produce a device small enough to fit on a long-range missile. Great uncertainty also prevails regarding the general progress and advancement of the nuclear programme, leading to speculation and anxiety especially among the DPRK’s biggest critics, namely South Korea and Japan.

The recent rocket launch and nuclear tests constitute clear violations of the UN Security Council’s resolutions 1718, 1874 and 2087, which clarify the international community’s determination to take significant action in case of any indication suggesting a non peaceful use of nuclear energy, leading to the actor’s further isolation. While US President Barack Obama called the recent tests a “provocation” in his annual State of the Union speech, Japan pressed the international community for more severe sanctions. Even North Korea’s sole ally China expressed “firm opposition”, strongly urging the DPRK to “refrain from any further moves that may further worsen the situation” and summoned the North Korean ambassador in protest.

Multiple rounds of international negotiations amid strict sanctions appear to have done little to curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Despite the change in leadership and the reconciliatory tone of Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech, it seems like the DPRK continues to stir up resentment by following the path it has been taking on since the early 1990s.