North Korea’s Nuclear Test: A Silver Lining?

North Korea’s third nuclear test could have some interesting geopolitical repercussions.

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.

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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.