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— General Manoj Pande, Indian Army Chief

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My compliments to SP Guide Publications for informative and credible reportage on contemporary aerospace issues over the past six decades.

— Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari, Indian Air Force Chief

Pyongyang Picks a Fight

Issue: 05-2009By Air Marshal (Retd) B.K. PandeyIllustration(s): By Nuclear-Blast.jpg

On May 25, North Korea successfully completed an underground nuclear test as the secretive regime persisted with efforts to bolster its nuclear capabilities after a rocket test launch earlier in April. Defiant in the face of international condemnation of its latest nuclear test, North Korea also fired two short-range (130 km) missiles—one surface-to-air and one surface-to-ship—off of its east coast. Pyongyang, meanwhile, also accused Washington of plotting against its government. A military statement quoted by official media repeated Pyongyang’s position that Seoul’s decision to join the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative is tantamount to a declaration of war. The statement said the US imperialists and the traitor Lee Myung-Bak’s group have driven the situation on the Korean peninsula into a state of war.

Estimates of the size of the device exploded vary. Russia claims it is 20 kilo-tonne, while Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization maintains it is only of marginally higher capacity than the one detonated in 2006. Whatever the size, the detonation, registered as 4.52 on the Richter scale, has sent a ripple of dismay across the free world and Pyongyang is now sitting high in the foreign policy agenda of the US. Preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, the economic crisis at home and repairing damaged international relations, Washington appears to be at its wit’s end. Beyond mere rhetoric and veiled threats of dire consequences through collective action by the world community, there has so far been little indication of any coherent strategy to respond to the act conducted in brazen violation of UN Security Council resolution 1718. Further, the test has rendered the progress made in the apparently defunct six-party talks on North Korea irrelevant.

One cannot rule out the possibility that periodic display of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are orchestrated by China to further its strategic objectives in the region and keep the US perpetually on tenterhooks. North Korea is dependent on China for economic, political, military and technological support and China could well outsource to her most dependable ally some of her strategic responsibilities in the region. Armed with veto-wielding powers, China is always ready to safeguard North Korea’s interests in the UN. China’s opposition to the test, therefore, is mere diplomatic propriety and ought not to be taken at face value. Through the May 25 episode, China may actually be goading the Barack Obama regime.

While North Korea does not yet possess the capability to threaten the US directly, the communist country’s track record of clandestine collaboration with Pakistan in the regime of nuclear and missile technology ought to be a matter of serious concern not only for Washington but for Delhi as well. In this context, India’s reaction is inexplicably mild and muted.

Declassified documents claim North Korea began dabbling with nuclear technology in the mid-1950s in pursuit of military self-reliance against perceived threat from a possible Americaled alliance in the region, comprising the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) and Japan. China has been a staunch ally ever since the early 1950s, when it physically supported Pyongyang in the Korean War. With the emergence of the US as the sole superpower, North Korea’s efforts have been to establish with Washington a balanced equation, based not on submission or servility, but as equal partners with mutual recognition of each other’s status, rights and role in the comity of nations. However, given the all round asymmetry between the two nations, the very idea would seem rather impertinent and galling to the US.