N. Korea 'playing US against China'

An army and civilian gathering in Pyongyang last Friday celebrating North Korea's first successful H-bomb test. Leader Kim Jong Un (above) has been called inexperienced and erratic but, with the test, he appears to have mastered a strategy that has s
An army and civilian gathering in Pyongyang last Friday celebrating North Korea's first successful H-bomb test. Leader Kim Jong Un (above) has been called inexperienced and erratic but, with the test, he appears to have mastered a strategy that has served his country well: pitting one big power against another.PHOTO: REUTERS
An army and civilian gathering in Pyongyang last Friday celebrating North Korea's first successful H-bomb test. Leader Kim Jong Un (above) has been called inexperienced and erratic but, with the test, he appears to have mastered a strategy that has s
An army and civilian gathering in Pyongyang last Friday celebrating North Korea's first successful H-bomb test. Leader Kim Jong Un has been called inexperienced and erratic but, with the test, he appears to have mastered a strategy that has served his country well: pitting one big power against another.PHOTO: REUTERS

Pyongyang taking risky gamble as it justifies nuclear test by citing failed Mid-East regimes

SEOUL • North Korea has defended its latest nuclear test, citing the fate of two toppled Middle East leaders, as it warns that the South is playing with fire by blasting high-decibel propaganda across their border in response to the test.

A commentary published by the official KCNA news agency last Friday said the fate of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya showed what happened when countries forsake their nuclear weapon ambitions.

It said Pyongyang's fourth nuclear test was a "great event" that provided North Korea with a deterrent powerful enough to secure its borders against all hostile forces, including the United States. "History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest... for frustrating outsiders' aggression."

North Korea said last Wednesday's test was of a miniaturised hydrogen bomb - a claim largely dismissed by experts.

"The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programmes of their own accord," the commentary said.

BIG CHALLENGE FOR MR XI

The stars are probably as aligned as you could make them for Xi Jinping to do something unconventional and unprecedented.

MR EVANS REVERE, a former State Department specialist on North Korea, on how the Chinese leader is facing a critical test in trying to restrain North Korea without undermining China's own interests

Both had made the mistake, the commentary argued, of yielding to Western pressure led by a US bent on regime change.

South Korea last Thursday took unilateral action by switching on giant banks of speakers on the border and blasting a mix of propaganda and K-pop into North Korea.

In Pyongyang's first official response to the sonic barrage, ruling party official Kim Ki Nam told a mass rally last Friday that Seoul is "driving the situation on the peninsula to the brink of war". Yesterday, Pyongyang started its own loudspeaker propaganda along the border in a tit-for-tat move.

The young leader of North Korea, Mr Kim Jong Un, has often been dismissed as inexperienced, erratic and even clueless. But with the North's test of a nuclear bomb last week, he appears to have mastered a strategy that has served his reclusive country well: playing one big power against another.

The nuclear test quickly increased tensions between the US and China, with the two nations blaming each other for North Korea's nuclear programme.

"This is exactly what North Korea wanted," said Dr Go Myong Hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

"If its erratic behaviour drives South Korea closer to the United States, China will feel more surrounded and that will give North Korea room to manoeuvre."

But for Mr Kim to thumb his nose at China, he is gambling that Beijing will continue to believe that keeping a nuclear-armed North Korea on its border as a buffer against the Americans and South Koreans is more important than forcing it to denuclearise.

That is a big wager. As pressure grows on China to take a leading role in restraining the North by cutting oil shipments and disrupting financial transactions, Chinese President Xi Jinping faces a critical test of his leadership: Whether he can subdue a young leader without undermining China's own interests.

"The stars are probably as aligned as you could make them for Xi Jinping to do something unconventional and unprecedented," said former State Department specialist on North Korea Evans Revere.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE,NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline 'N. Korea 'playing US against China''. Print Edition | Subscribe