They say the secret to great comedy is timing, but few within our Party will find reason for amusement at North Korea’s latest demonstration of their burgeoning nuclear capability. Kim Jong Un has chosen to perform another test detonation of a new, more powerful nuclear device at a time when our Party is at loggerheads over whether or not to renew our country’s own ageing nuclear capability. There are implications for both our Party, the Pacific region and the global community at large.
Jeremy Corbyn's case for British nuclear disarmament will not be helped by the emergence of a new nuclear power in the world, especially when the regime in question is governed by a maverick like Kim Jong Un who does not appear to be amenable to reason. For example, Xi Jinping is said to be furious over Kim’s decision to test a nuclear device without notifying him in advance, despite China being the DPRK's most significant benefactor. Kim gains nothing by angering China or alienating its leadership, though this has not stopped him from pursuing his nuclear programme in a manner that has antagonised his neighbour and ally.
But what does this actually mean for international defence and strategy? Well… Probably not a lot. Beyond the diplomatic implications, a nation state with Westphalian sovereignty -- albeit one that is frequently and variously described as ‘rogue’ or ‘isolated’ -- can be depended upon to behave in a predictable manner in the arena of nuclear standoff.
This is because there are good reasons to believe that even a totalitarian nation state with an eccentric and unstable figure like Kim Jung Un at the helm won’t deploy a nuclear weapon where there is likelihood of retaliation, even if it looked as though Kim was inclined to do so. Behind every despot is a suite of people who benefit from their patronage and in return shore up their leadership. When all a leader has to offer is the mutually assured destruction of their own society and the society of their most hated enemy, those that have the most to lose and the least to gain i.e. the political elites upon whom the leader is dependent, will see that as quite a hard sell indeed. We can reasonably assume that in such a situation, the apparatus that sustains their regime will turn against them.
In fact, these demonstrations of strength by Kim are designed specifically to appease those upon whom his leadership is dependent. International provocation of this manner places an emphasis on defence and militarisation, shoring up Kim’s support with his Generals. There is, however, a delicate balance to be struck between provocative displays of military might and destabilising acts of brinkmanship that could undermine his own leadership by making him appear imprudent to his own cohort.
It seems that, despite harsh international sanctions, North Korea remains determined to develop a nuclear capability, as well as a delivery system capable of striking the United States. The chances of this ever being used for the purpose it was designed are remote, making the likelihood of nuclear war not significantly greater than prior to Kim's latest test: but this is of course only kept in check by the prospect of his adversary's ability to retaliate.
Proponents of the government's plans to renew the UK's Trident programme will point to Kim's regime as an example of why maintaining a nuclear deterrent is essential in a world where the scientific knowledge required to build a nuclear device is widespread, and the resources necessary to construct one are obtainable even by a country incapable of feeding its own people. But those against the renewal of trident will claim the existence of the USA's own triad of nuclear weapons and our membership of NATO is sufficient to keep the lid on thermonuclear war.
It seems, in light of this, we might never be able to have a completely nuclear-free world so long as the potential for a rogue state to develop a weapon exists. And Kim's actions make it clear that this won't change any time soon.
Alex Chai is a member of Chinese for Labour and Director of Consensus, a non-aligned organisation fostering open and inclusive debate amongst different wings of the Labour Party. More information can be found at www.labourconsensus.org.uk