What will China do about Nork nuke ambitions?
So why did its young leader, Kim Jong-un, go ahead with it in the face of strong warnings to desist? I think there were many reasons, but two main ones.
Firstly, the North Korean regime has calculated that its survival depends on having a credible nuclear deterrent.
Pyongyang has watched what has happened to those who did not have this, from Saddam Hussein to Muammar Gaddafi, and concluded that agreements with the international community, although they can be useful for extracting aid, will not in the end guarantee the Kim dynasty's continued hold on power – only the possession of "nukes" will achieve this.
There may have been a time when Pyongyang was willing to trade its nuclear programmes for other benefits but that moment, if it existed, has passed. North Korea has repeatedly made clear that it now has no intention of abandoning its nuclear weapons programme. But to make its nuclear deterrent credible it has to continue to perfect it – and crucially to show that it can build a nuclear device small enough to mount on a missile (it successfully tested a long-range missile, in the guise of a space launch, in December). Hence last week's test.
Secondly, North Korea is in many ways a very traditional East Asian state.
Kim Jong-un is leader only because he was anointed by his father to succeed him, so to ignore Kim Jong-il's wishes, an act of flagrant impiety, would call into question his fitness to rule. Therefore, whatever he personally might think of the nuclear programme, Kim Jong-un is duty bound to continue with it.
What happens next will depend most of all on China.
Although North Korea depends on China for aid and trade, and despite repeated declarations of friendship by both sides, the North Koreans that I knew really did not like the Chinese, whom they regarded as rude, bullying, fond of eating the most disgusting things and with unfortunate personal habits. I once asked a friend whether they minded working with foreigners. They replied that they liked western foreigners, and found them polite and good company. "Not like Chinese", they said, shuddering.
My contacts with China suggest that this dislike is reciprocated. Some have told me that they find North Koreans mendacious and devious, and almost impossible to understand.
But despite this antipathy the two countries have been forced into a strategic embrace. North Korea needs Chinese aid and diplomatic support, and China needs to avoid a North Korean collapse (which might send floods of refugees into China's north-eastern rust belt). It also finds North Korea a useful buffer against US forces in South Korea.
There are however many other Chinese who believe that the time has come to end, or at least reduce, China's support for North Korea. If their view prevails then China has the ability to apply overwhelming pressure to North Korea, by halting aid or limiting trade. If it were ever to do this it is likely that there would be fundamental changes in North Korea – the trick would be to achieve these without violence.
...I think the Chinese like the fact that North Korea focuses so much attention on itself leaving the Chinese to look comparatively reasonable. I also think that the North Korean belief that it is more dangerous to not have nukes does look like a reasonable argument on its face, but it is also likely to backfire on them at some point, especially of China abandons them. They are also making it more likely that South Korea and Japan will build nukes and will not be as hesitant as the US in using them against a belligerent regime.