PAJU (South Korea) • Across the Imjin River, a mere 10km away from this town, the bleak mountain tops of North Korea, denuded long ago by people scrounging for fuel wood and timber, stand as desolate testimony to the isolation of the North. The freezing temperatures of January and the icy winds are an apt metaphor for the state of ties between the divided Koreas. The surface tranquillity in the Land of the Morning Calm belies the troubled feelings that lie underneath as Seoul contemplates how to deal with that boy next door with the nuclear toy.
On Jan 6, Mr Kim Jong Un, the 33-year-old dictator of tiny and troubled North Korea, announced he had just tested an atomic device, claimed to be a hydrogen bomb. Why precisely he chose this moment for his nation's fourth nuclear test is a matter of conjecture. It could be that he was incensed that the US, which has some 30,000 troops stationed in the South, wasn't responding to his overtures for a diplomatic opening on the lines of its deal with Iran. Perhaps he was seeking to consolidate his power ahead of a crucial Workers' Party Congress this summer, the first in 18 years. Maybe, he was just plain jealous that his political sibling to the South, President Park Geun Hye, was getting more attention from China's Xi Jinping. Spoilt children, even if they finished school in Switzerland, can act wantonly. So, maybe Mr Kim did just that - ordered the blast so he could clap at the noise.
But this is serious business. North Korea's nuclear testing has come with a tedious regularity and, whatever you might think of the state of its parlous economy, there is little doubt that its nuclear programme is being pursued with vigour and ample funding. Nuclear warheads getting miniaturised are not to be scoffed at - they raise the risk of war because you could gamble on getting away with using them, unlike bigger bombs. Besides, despite an outward appearance of regime stability, it is not clear how secure Mr Kim is on the throne.
Last May, the defence minister, long-time loyalist to Mr Kim's father, Mr Kim Jong Il, was said to have been publicly executed a few days after he was seen nodding off at a meeting called by the Young Leader. Two years ago, young Mr Kim's uncle, Mr Jang Song Thaek, considered the second most powerful man in Pyongyang, was put to death, apparently for "attempting to overthrow the state". Mr Jang had been a key interlocutor for the regime's dealings with China. Then, six days before the latest blast, Mr Kim lost a "close comrade", Mr Kim Yang Gon, in a purported road accident. Pyongyang traffic has significantly increased in recent years but doesn't exactly compare with Bangkok's Sukhumvit Road for density. Besides, a high party official in a Stalinist state- this one was in charge of dealing with South Korea - ought to have enjoyed better protection. This raised all sorts of speculation about a military role in the death, even of potential threats to the Young Leader himself.
Indeed, some, such as Mr Lee Wonwoo, director-general of the department of Asia-Pacific studies at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul, think Mr Kim may have set himself up for a calamity.
"Eight hundred and fifty years ago there was a military revolution in Korea," Mr Lee told me last week, looking out at the powdery snow descending on the capital city. "Scholars were killed and the military ruled for 100 years. All this after the son of a famous scholar insulted the generals. You see that in Korea now. In the South, the third generation running chaebols are doing outrageous things. In the North, young Kim is making the top generals kneel in front of him. He is seeding revolt, even from the bottom up."
Regardless of what Mr Kim may be doing to himself, it is what he plans for his neighbours, particularly South Korea and Japan, that has the world worried. Both have steadfastly desisted from developing nuclear weapons, making for an asymmetry in strike power that is only levelled by the US presence in the southern half of the Korean peninsula, and in Okinawa, Japan. But here's the thing. It is this US presence so close to its borders that also bothers China and leads it to coddle the boy with the nuclear toy, seeking to place North Korea as a buffer zone. The South's Ms Park went on national television last week to plead with China for a stronger stand against the regime, and backing for vigorous new sanctions. But it is no surprise that Beijing, after initial criticism of the test blast, has not been too forthcoming on the issue, never mind Mr Xi's evident distaste for Mr Kim.
"The official Chinese position is for a unified Korea," retired major- general Pan Zheqiang of the Chinese PLA explained to me this week in Singapore. "But China also has to think carefully what kind of Korea that will be and if it will mean US troops moving up to just across the Yalu River."
Also, he says, those who expect the North to collapse if Mr Kim departs may be indulging in wishful thinking. "The regime's resilience may surprise them."
China's latest vacillation has come as a massive disappointment to Seoul, which had assiduously built up ties with Beijing, even at the cost of being perceived as the weakest link among the Asian nations allied to the United States. It was bad enough that China adopted an even-handed approach when the North caused the death of 46 South Korean navy personnel in 2010 after torpedoing their vessel in the Yellow Sea. Now, in the wake of the North's blast, there is a sense of letdown, that all the overtures - including Ms Park being the only US ally to show up for Mr Xi's parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II - have been in vain. As Dr Hahm Chaibong, president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies puts it, there is genuine chemistry between Ms Park and Mr Xi but, at some point, national security interests take priority.
Although the moment hasn't arrived yet, says Dr Hahm, the air is more congenial for South Korea to accept the US Thaad (terminal high-altitude air defence) missile system than any time in the recent past. If nothing else, the system should be allowed in as a message to Beijing. Thaad is frowned upon by China as a destabiliser for the region's balance of power.
TOKYO, SEOUL GET CLOSER
Situations like these offer up an opening to Japan to draw South Korea closer. Already, it had softened the ground in Seoul with its stunning and unexpected apology over the comfort women issue. Prodded by the US, Mr Shinzo Abe has risked ultra nationalist ire in his own country to attempt to settle the issue once and for all with acceptance of "deep responsibility", along with a direct apology and monetary compensation to the remaining 46 victims.
Although the statue of a lone Korean comfort woman still stands across the street from the Japanese Embassy - touchingly, passers-by come up and put shawls and mufflers around its shoulders in the winter cold - Seoul has agreed to work to remove these "peace monuments". It also has promised to not raise the issue in international forums henceforth.
It is a measure of how swiftly the landscape could change on the Korean peninsula that no one could have predicted all this when Ms Park sat down with Mr Abe in early November for their first summit. At the time, the outside view was that this has been a "cold summit" - without a joint statement, joint press appearance or even an official lunch hosted. Behind the scenes, though, much was happening.
"After the first meeting went on for an hour at Blue House, with just three officials on each side assisting their leaders, Abe laid out his intentions clearly. By the time, they were joined by a bigger group of officials, Park's demeanour had changed," says a senior Asian diplomat who assisted in the talks. "When she looked at Abe, there was a noticeable softening in her expression."
What followed in the next few weeks in Seoul was interesting. In mid-December, the Seoul Central District Court cleared the former bureau chief of the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun of defaming Ms Park in a report he wrote about her whereabouts during a major ferry disaster the previous year. Prosecutors had demanded an 18-month jail term.
A week later, a South Korean constitutional court refused to review a complaint over a 1965 treaty between Japan and South Korea that Tokyo used to deny compensation for South Korean victims of World War II-era slavery. Whether Seoul had created a good ambience by leaning on the judiciary, as some suspect, will never be known. But certainly, the air had been warmed over. Two days later, Japan and South Korea announced their historic deal.
Seoul will not hurry to build up its strategic relationship with Japan, content to let the US be the third- party intermediary for now in the triangulated ties. Politically, excess speed on that front would be unwise for any Korean government. But Mr Abe's gambit was a bold one, and will require Seoul to respond appropriately. As Mr Lim Sung Nam, South Korea's Vice-minister for Foreign Affairs, described it, while this is not the end of the story, it is the beginning of a new chapter.
Beijing should take note. Its fence-sitting on North Korea may prove more costly for it than it may be aware. And South Korea may not be the weak link in the US chain that it may have thought it to be.
•The writer was in Seoul recently at the invitation of the South Korean government.
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.