Region: A Shift in the Regional Balance of Power After North Korea's Nuclear Test?


Phar Kim Beng

Scholars have always differed widely on the concept of a balance of power in Asia. Some attest to the rise of an economic power, referring to China, as the sign of an impending 'shift' in the region by 2015. Yet others have averred to the importance of the US retaining its preeminence in the region as the key element in the existing balance of power. On 9 October the idea widened again.

North Korea's nuclear test, rightly or wrongly, has been deemed sufficiently significant to have altered the military balance of power. Although the test was a mere 3 per cent of the magnitude of the 1945 atomic blast in Hiroshima, other factors have reinforced this perception of a shift in power.

The seeming 'irrational' and belligerent nature of this communist regime has lent credence to the view that North Korea has gained an upper hand. Kim Jong Il's recalcitrance in stalling the Six Party Talks, which have been moribund for a year, further suggests the inability of various parties, including China, to influence the behavior of Pyongyang.

Thus, in spite of the small scale of the test, the blast, which came somewhat out of the blue, was regarded with some alarm. In particular, there was the fear that North Korea, once again, was about to hold others to ransom, this time through direct nuclear blackmail.

Such apprehensions certainly were at work to motivate the leaders of various countries to begin immediate diplomatic coordination at the UN Security Council. To restore the strategic parity, the international community responded by slapping Pyongyang with more sanctions, on top of other measures already adopted by the UN Security Council in July 2006 to deter Pyongyang from engaging in missile proliferation.

In spite of such fears and swift action, questions remain as to whether the true balance of power has indeed shifted in North Korea's favour. The conventional military superiority of South Korea remains considerable. According to defence analysts, South Korea continues to have a qualitative edge in naval, aerial and land combat, in spite of North Korea's large standing army.

Indeed, since the nuclear test did not by default lead to immediate weaponization, it is also questionable if North Korea has reversed its vulnerability.

Moreover, days after the detonation of the nuclear device, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was quick to re-assure Japan that the US was ready to 'defend Japan' at all cost. This includes protecting Japan under a US nuclear umbrella. In turn, Foreign Minister Taro Aso agreed that Japan should not 'go nuclear' at all.

With the election of Ban Ki-Moon, the out-going foreign minister of South Korea, as the Secretary General designate of the United Nations, Seoul also has plenty of scope for containing the foreign policy adventurism of its northern neighbour.

Seeking not to rock North Korea further, Beijing also sent to North Korea Tang Jia Xuan, its special envoy on North Korea, to register China's concern, although China stopped short of saying that it would call for an end to the various forms of sanctions.

Thus, although the international community now has to deal with a North Korea that has an active nuclear program, the likely prospects for a negotiated solution are not entirely improbable.

Going by the 1994 precedent, when the Clinton Administration successfully put a cap on North Korea's nuclear weaponization program under the Korean Energy Development Organization (KEDO), future diplomatic progress cannot be ruled out.

What makes the next round of negotiations more complicated is whether the US and others can first deliver on a non-aggression treaty, which Pyongyang has been looking for anyway, without also agreeing to a strong verification regime. Thus, the nuclear blast has put yet a further spanner in the sequence of the diplomatic wrangle: Which should come first - a non-aggression treaty or a verification regime?

With the US congressional Mid-Term Election coming up in November 2007, in which the President George Bush's Republican Party is expected to incur some significant losses, there is no sign that President George Bush will relent at all in his stance.

In this sense, though Korean problem has its geopolitical underpinnings, it is also intertwined with the domestic politics of the other countries that are seeking to either stop or engage North Korea.

WATCHPOINT: Implementation of UN sanctions imposed on North Korea will test the international community's commitment to working together to resolve the problem posed by North Korea's nuclear diplomacy.


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