North Korea’s Nuclear Test: A Silver Lining?
Image Credit: Office of the Prime Minister: Japan

North Korea’s Nuclear Test: A Silver Lining?


It’s hard to imagine that a mushroom cloud can have a silver lining.  Certainly North Korea’s latest nuclear test (underground, so no actual cloud) is bad for the global nuclear non-proliferation order and bad for stability in an already-troubled North Asia.  It would be better if things had not come to this.

And yet, among the geopolitical repercussions worth watching for, there are at least three that may end up being of net benefit for regional security and stability.

First by stealing the headlines from China-Japan maritime tensions, the nuclear test gives the leadership in both Beijing and Tokyo a chance to focus on a foreign and security policy challenge where their interests are not diametrically at odds.  Shinzo Abe has a chance to look tough on national security without courting war with China. Meanwhile at least some of the Chinese netizens who normally focus on demonizing Japan have another place to direct their outrage, however briefly – at the way North Korea has humiliated China by ignoring its public warnings not to test.

Second, the test offers an opportunity for Japan and South Korea to find common cause, and to look aside from their recent differences over history and their own disputed islands. 

Part of Shinzo Abe’s foreign and security policy philosophy is to cultivate partners across Asia, from the Philippines to India, presumably to offset Chinese power. But South Korea seems to have been a blind spot. Abe seems to have been more interested in downplaying Japanese historical guilt over the so-called ‘comfort women’ issue than in trying constructive engagement with Seoul on contemporary regional security challenges.

The latest North Korean test may be enough to push the conservative governments in Tokyo and Seoul back towards the security-first mindset where they should be ideological soul mates. This could involve their trying to revitalize efforts at three-way security coordination with the United States, which last surfaced after the North Korean provocations of 2010.

The critical technology here is missile defense. At the very least we can now expect both South Korea and Japan to step up investment in missile defenses and to be open to greater cooperation with the United States on this front.

Third, and most importantly, there’s the question of what the test will mean for relations between the United States and China, the critical bilateral relationship in managing the strategic future of Indo-Pacific Asia and the world.

Xi Jinping and a number of Chinese thinkers have spoken of a new kind of great-power relationship.  The aftermath of the North Korean nuclear test is an exceptional opportunity to find out what that actually means. It is a chance for Washington and Beijing to rediscover a sense of common cause in restraining North Korea. 

China’s internal debate about whether to pressure or unconditionally tolerate North Korea’s outrages is likely to reopen. Now is the time for the United States and other countries to help influence that debate, by reminding China that a North Korea with a credible nuclear capability is harmful for China’s interests.

Moves to strengthen U.S.-Japan, U.S.-South Korea or even Japan-South Korea security cooperation could help send that signal. They may fuel Chinese allegations of containment, but they would be a natural reaction to Japanese and South Korean anxieties about the North’s movement towards a deployable nuclear weapon. If China brings real pressure to bear on Pyongyang, then its claim that Asia does not need America’s pivot will become somewhat more credible.

February 20, 2013 at 20:31

Japan should nuclearize herself without further delay. To Japan’s west lie two hoodlums, which do not value human freedom. To protect herself and the values of freedom and human dignity that she subscribes to, Japan should equip herself with a credible nuclear arsenal.

papa john
February 19, 2013 at 07:26

After years of propping the NKorea, what the Chinese got in return? a middle finger to the face from North Korean and what could the Chinese do in response? Nothing. In fact, a horrible picture in their mind is that next time, NKorea won't test in its soil, the test will be on Beijing.

February 18, 2013 at 20:14

Friends or Rivals? The Insider's Account of U.S.-Japan Relations.

Japan's ambassador to U.S. says ties are in 'crucial period'


It's time for Japan to free itself.


February 18, 2013 at 20:09

It's high time that Japan test nuclear weapons, deploy ICBMs, nuclear subs, aircraft carriers and long range bombers and project military power towards the pacific. Hopefully Abe can achieve this.

February 18, 2013 at 20:07

U.S should withdraw their troops from South Korea and end their alliance.

February 18, 2013 at 07:53


It will give NK a sense of security no doubt but…stability. No way. NK has nukes and everyone is freaking out including China in some articles I've read.

China with its neighbours have and can deal with China having nukes but a regime like NK will cause INSTABILITY and the evidence points to the testing they've done, when a projectile that can cause mass destruction flying past over the Japanese skies causes INSTABILITY!. You're INSANE do you realize that!. What are you smoking?


Don't forget the Kim Il Sung invaded the South thinking US and its allies would not come to aid them. He was wrong and look what happened.


February 17, 2013 at 10:26

The silver lining is that Japan will go nuclear. And it's about time. 

Leonard R.
February 16, 2013 at 01:24

I think that's an interesting point you make.


The US should not transfer missile technology to S. K. IMO. So Moscow and Seoul might become quite the new couple on the world stage. And I would wish them the best. That could be a good thing for the US too. Washington could finally get its troops out of harm's way and it would leave China to babysit the brat in Pyongyang.


Tokyo is a much more reliable ally than Seoul. Japan & the US could focus on what's important - defending themselves against China.  And with Russia as SK's defender? That would be a win-win all around. 

TV Monitor
February 15, 2013 at 01:08

The ROK still isn't interested in participating in the US Missile Defense program, which is seen as useless for short-range ballistic missile defense and a waste of money; they will accelerate their own KAMD program and the KL-SAM missile instead according to the defense minister.

Due to the historical US refusal to transfer missile tech, the ROK missile technology is heavily influenced by Russia. which has been unusually cooperative in technical assistance in order to keep the missile defense out of Korea. Therefore it is still highly unlikely that the ROK would jeopardize that good working relationship with Russia by participating in the Missile Defense program. Russia may feel the pressure to finally transfer the S-400's long range targeting radar tech to the KL-SAM program if they see that the US pressure on the Missile Defense is increasing.

Yu Yong-chun
February 15, 2013 at 00:26

Why should the fact that just because the DPRK does not follow Beijing's advice to go ahead with the nuclear test that it is therefore a case of N Korea humilating China?  What kind of illogic is that?  Did James Holmes wrote that or the editor mischievously altered or added that?

February 15, 2013 at 00:06

North Korea tests Asian security

By Muthiah Alagappa

North Korea is on its way to developing a nuclear weapon to reach targets near and far, including the United States, China, and Russia. Rather than tighten the sanctions screws, the international community could recognize instead that nuclear capability will give Pyongyang a greater sense of security and thus enhance stability in Asia…

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