The reason North Korea pushed ahead with a nuclear test despite strong opposition from China is because the ghost of late leader Kim Jong-il still haunts the country, and his son Jong-un is merely a puppet who lacks any sense of direction. The nuclear test was guaranteed, since Kim Jong-il's militarist obsessions remain strongly etched into the psyche of the North Korean regime.
Still, there is no denying that the decision must have been tough for the North. North Korea signed the 1994 Geneva Framework Agreement, whereby it agreed to freeze its nuclear facilities if it was given a light-water reactor, demonstrating that international pressure can be effective. When millions of North Koreans starved during the famine of the 1990s, the North was unable to carry on developing nuclear weapons. If South Korea had then had a strong conservative government, instead of a leftwing government bent on engagement and aid, Pyongyang could have either delayed or completely scrapped its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea is facing a crisis of similar proportions now, some aid agencies say. But two things have changed. First, North Koreans genuinely cared about Kim Jong-il even while millions starved to death in the 1990s. The North Korean public, who were isolated from the outside world, believed the U.S. was to blame for their economic hardship. But this is no longer the case. Things like widely distributed samizdat DVDs of South Korean and other foreign TV shows as well as the dynastic succession have led to increased disillusionment among North Koreans and sapped confidence in their leadership.
The second change is in the external environment. During the North’s first and second nuclear tests, the South was governed by administrations that were sympathetic to Pyongyang, and China barely said a word against the tests because it feared the entire Korean Peninsula would fall under U.S. influence if the North Korean regime collapsed. But now Beijing supports UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea over last year's rocket launch. Kim Jong-un is playing a dangerous game by pushing ahead with the nuclear test. With the exception of a handful of sycophants, most observers see the latest provocation as the beginning of the end for the Kim dynasty.
The fundamental solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis is regime change in the North. In order to achieve this, the international community must prepare for three more options in addition to the sanctions it has implemented so far. First, South Korea and the international community must get China to halt the repatriation of North Korean defectors. That would be a strong blow to the regime. Second, more and more information about the outside world needs to reach ordinary North Koreans. And lastly, the international community must make Pyongyang realize that the threat of pre-emptive strikes against its military facilities is not a bluff.
Kim has seen the fate of other dictators around the world and believes nuclear weapons are his security blanket. He needs to be made to understand that they are nothing of the kind.
By Kang Chol-hwan at North Korea Strategy Center