KCNA / Reuters

North Korea's nuclear test is a 'desperate' show of strength

Analysis: With a precarious grip on power, Kim Jong Un uses display of might to affirm strength to his own people

In late November, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon raised hopes for a historic visit to North Korea. He had received “positive signs” from Pyongyang, he told South Korean reporters at the U.N. “We are discussing when would be the good time for me to visit the North, but so far nothing has been decided.” It would have been the first visit by a U.N. chief in more than 20 years to the pariah state.

Instead, just a few weeks later, North Korea's isolation has reached a new low point. Talks between North and South Korea fell apart in December. On Wednesday, after North Korean state media claimed that the country detonated a hydrogen bomb, Ban condemned the North Korean regime unequivocally, calling the test "profoundly destabilizing for regional security."

It looks like the beginning of a familiar pattern in relations between North Korea and the rest of the world: provocation, a negotiation to secure economic aid and political concessions, the exhausting of those benefits, the breaking of the agreement and then starting all over again.

Morse Tan, a professor at Northern Illinois College of Law and author of "North Korea, International Law and the Dual Crises: Narrative and Constructive Engagement," said that, in this round of the cycle, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may hope to take human rights off the negotiating table. "North Korea feels threatened by the U.N. Security Council taking up the human rights issues pertaining to North Korea," Tan told Al Jazeera.

But this provocation does not necessarily reflect a real security threat. Analysts in South Korea as well as officials from the White House have cast doubt on whether the test, hailed on North Korean state television as a display of nuclear might, was really a hydrogen bomb. “Such a claim in the absence of conclusive corroborating evidence conveys desperation and weakness from a regime that has increasingly stood on claims to North Korea’s nuclear status as a source of domestic legitimacy,” wrote Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “North Korea’s latest test suggests evidence of weakness rather than strength."

There have been reports of multiple purges within the North Korean leadership in recent months, signals of a regime that is not secure, according to Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. And with plans for a congress of the Worker’s Party of Korea in May — the first such gathering in North Korea since 1980 — Kim is looking for a tangible sign of accomplishment.

“The audience for this is heavily internal,” Sneider told Al Jazeera.

Conditions for ordinary people in North Korea, meanwhile, are persistently grim. The country suffered a severe drought last summer, followed by flooding, and the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that the country faces a shortfall of 1.2 million tons of food in 2016. North Korea also recently cut its food rations by 21 percent to an average of 250 grams (8.8 ounces) per day — about the same as the daily bread ration in 1942 for children under 12 during the siege of Leningrad.

Unable to fulfill his promise to deliver economic development along with nuclear development, Kim relies on symbolic shows of strength. “He wants to affirm his strength to his own people,” Tan said. “He has a precarious grip on power and he knows it.” With the nuclear test, he “tries to show his people that he is strong and powerful and in control.”

The danger for North Korea is antagonizing China, its only political ally and the source of more than 80 percent of its trade. While Beijing has made its displeasure known, Sneider said Pyongyang is willing to take the risk. Relations with China have been deteriorating for years, but North Korea has faced few consequences from Beijing, which continues to support it economically while publicly criticizing its aggression. “There has been no point where China has been willing to change their policy of helping to keep the North Korean regime alive,” Sneider said.

With Beijing joining the chorus of condemnation for this latest nuclear test, the real risk to North Korea is one its people are already familiar with — further isolation from the world.

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