The revival of the North Korean nuclear crisis is threatening the security environment in Northeast Asia.
In a statement released on Jan. 6, the North Korean government announced that it was successful in what it called its first hydrogen bomb test. This is the country's fourth nuclear test since 2006. If it really was a hydrogen bomb, it would pose a far more serious threat to the world, particularly countries in northeastern Asia, than previous tests, since the destructive force of a hydrogen bomb is said to be hundreds of times that of an atomic bomb.
In an unprecedented move, North Korea failed to notify China in advance of the test. Pyongyang had previously taken provocative acts in an apparent bid to gain an advantageous position in its negotiations as it was in confrontation with the United States and South Korea. However, the latest move came abruptly.
Prior assertions by North Korea, which had been under the rule of the late leader Kim Jong Il who died in late 2011, had shown a certain level of rationality even though they were incompatible with Japanese and U.S. logic. However, since Kim Jong Un took over the leadership from his father, it has become difficult to predict what North Korea will do next.
Growing uncertainty in a secluded state like North Korea is a serious destabilizing factor for its neighbors. It should be noted that Pyongyang failed to show consideration even to Beijing, its key supporter, in conducting its latest test.
Kim Jong Un said last month that North Korea had become a powerful nuclear power that can explode a hydrogen bomb. He apparently wanted to demonstrate the success of the hydrogen bomb test to the North Korean public to show him as a leader who is capable of opening a new era ahead of a convention of the ruling Korea Workers' Party due to be held in May for the first time in 36 years. However, this is a misguided idea.
Kim, who is first secretary of the Korea Workers' Party, has steadily bolstered his power base through a series of purges. At the same time, North Korea's economy has posted positive growth for four consecutive years up to last year, according to an estimate by the Bank of Korea, South Korea's central bank.
However, North Korea's economic growth has its limits since the country remains isolated from the rest of the world. North Korea should be aware that reckless acts would only end up making itself suffer more.
Pyongyang has invested massive amounts of money intensively in its nuclear and missile development programs despite its economic difficulties, conducting four nuclear tests and deploying a massive number of Rodong missiles that have the range to hit anywhere on the Japanese archipelago.
North Korea is steadily developing intercontinental ballistic missiles and even test-fired a submarine launched ballistic missile last year.
Even if the latest test was not a hydrogen bomb experiment, it is certain that North Korea is developing such a weapon considering Kim's recent statement. The performance of North Korea's nuclear weapons improved each time it conducted a test about every three years, posing a growing threat to Japan and other countries.
It appears that what was previously regarded as impossible with North Korea's technology has been becoming increasingly realistic. Under the rule of Kim Jong Un, North Korea has declared that it is simultaneously pursuing nuclear development and economic development. The international community should pay close attention to North Korea's capabilities.
The U.S. government of President Barack Obama, which was inaugurated in 2009, has been passive about North Korea. Rather, the Obama administration has prioritized its response to China that is making maritime advancements. As such, there is no denying that Japan and other countries have paid particular attention to China while they were less wary of North Korea's moves.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned what North Korea claimed to be a hydrogen bomb test as "totally intolerable as it poses a serious threat to Japan's security." Japan became a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council this month. Therefore, Tokyo must coordinate its views with other countries so that the international community can swiftly issue a message critical of North Korea's act.
It is of particular importance for Japan to strengthen its alliance with the United States and South Korea in countering the threat posed by North Korea. Relations between Japan and South Korea had worsened, but there are signs that the bilateral ties are improving after the two countries reached agreement on the "comfort women" issue. This trend should lead to the maintenance and strengthening of the trilateral alliance.
Japan also needs to secure the active involvement of China in resolving North Korea's nuclear crisis. China does not want the North Korean regime to collapse, but is clearly opposed to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons development program. Therefore, Beijing can agree with Tokyo, Washington and Seoul on the need to block North Korea from developing nuclear arms.
China can play an important role in ensuring that the international community's sanctions on North Korea will be effective.
Now is the time to resume the six-party talks, which are a security mechanism regarding North Korea's nuclear development program. No full meeting of the six-party talks has been held since the last one in 2007. It is an important framework that requires China, which chairs the talks, to fulfill its responsibility for resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Japan and the United States are demanding that North Korea take significant steps to abandon its nuclear program as a precondition for resuming the six-party talks. This is because Tokyo and Washington cannot overlook North Korea's subsequent provocative acts after Pyongyang promised in 2005 talks to abandon all its nuclear weapons and existing nuclear plans.
To make sure North Korea keeps its promise, Japan and other relevant countries should seek to resume the six-party talks. It is difficult to resolve the issue at any venue other than the six-party talks that involve all interested parties in Northeast Asia.
It is impossible to achieve peace and security in Northeast Asia without containing North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Japan should seek to rebuild an international coalition against North Korea's nuclear program in cooperation with China and Russia while solidifying Tokyo's cooperation with Washington and Seoul.