Pyongyang's nuke test highlights Asia security risks
Published: Sep 06, 2017 07:58 PM
North Korea's successful test of a hydrogen bomb on Sunday - its sixth nuclear test to date - again demonstrates how unstable Asia's security system is, which Asia's development has been built upon. Security guarantees for Asia are neither based on mutual friendship nor maintained completely by economic and trade relations.

After World War II, global security was guaranteed through the balance of nuclear power, and no other mechanism seemed to be able to replace this. But danger now looms as the possibility grows that Asia may only be able to maintain its security by holding the balance of nuclear power globally.

Back then, South Korea and Japan gained the capabilities to develop nuclear weapons. Seoul even intended to conduct nuclear programs covertly, but eventually was curbed by the US over fears that a South Korea armed with nuclear weapons would break the balance of power at that time. Otherwise, North Korea would soon own nuclear weapons with the help of the Soviet Union or China.

As the Soviet Union disintegrated and eastern European countries turned to the US and the EU, the Cold War came to an end and Asia's security system began to collapse. Yet the US didn't try to contrive a new system for replacement. Instead, Washington acted to reinforce and enhance its position in the old system and took aim at China as a target that should be countered. However, the perfect outcome from a US perspective in which the previous balance of power tipped in Washington's favor upon the breakup of the Soviet Union did not take place.

Many countries in Asia, including those that had been under the US security umbrella, sensitively detected the change and started to look to reach a new balance. Among them, North Korea is merely the one that has gone further and faster than any others.

The US-led security system is by its nature exclusive. In the meantime, the nature of North Korea's political regime has ensured that it could neither survive nor thrive within this system. North Korea therefore needed to either grow stronger or conduct reforms in its country - and it chose the former option.

Pyongyang began developing nuclear weapons at a time when the old balance was gone and it felt extremely insecure, hoping to make a balance again with nuclear weapons to guarantee its security. It used the opportunity presented as the old regime collapsed to own nuclear weapons quickly and started developing missiles that can bring the nuclear weapons to the US. The problem is, by doing so North Korea is likely to let the dangerous balance of nuclear powers in the Cold War era recur in Asia.

After the arms race ended between the US and the Soviet Union, Asian countries tried to bury the hatchet regarding cooperation and there has been indeed unprecedented development in regional economic and trade cooperation. However, Asia is still confined by its Achilles' heel - security.

A growing number of small and medium-sized countries realize that their security can no longer be guaranteed just by one major country. And this sense of insecurity has sized Asia and resulted in a lack of trust between regional neighbors. Tensions began to rise over long-existing territorial disputes.

On a positive note, North Korea's nuclear issue will eventually compel major countries to cooperate and build a new security mechanism. While looking forward to such cooperation, many smaller countries are also seeking to work together. No other country would consider taking the suicidal strategy that Pyongyang has adopted.

At this point, a new mechanism must be put in place to prevent North Korea's nuclear development from leading the old balance of power into danger. However, no one knows where to start. The US stubbornly has stuck to its Cold War mentality and made arrangements to counter China's rise. In this process, US allies have had no option but to toe the line and become a chess piece in the US government's plans whether voluntarily or otherwise.

Where the real danger lies, as North Korea bolsters its nuclear capabilities, is that we know very little about this country and have no real countermeasures in place to stop its development. This may end up with us pinning all hopes on the rationality of the North Korean authorities.

The author is a senior editor with the People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. dinggang@globaltimes.com.cn. Follow him on Twitter @dinggangchina