Kerry Brown: A chilling reminder of the last Stalinist state's power

North Korea's predictability in serving up unpredictable nasty surprises continues. A "satellite" launch in early April turns out only to be the prelude to another nuclear test, this time bringing condemnation from Beijing to Washington. Since its economy started imploding in the 1980s, North Korea has always had the most limited hand to play, but played it with great skill. With a quarter of its GDP devoted to the military, and a standing army of two million comprising a tenth of its whole population, North Korea's focus on being an aggravation has caused some commentators to call it a "guerrilla state".

President Barack Obama may think he has enough on his plate at the moment with the global economic problems. But in Pyongyang, that cuts no ice. One of the motivators for the latest activity will be a sharp reminder that the DPRK is still here, still a problem, and still able to claim amounts of the time of world leaders way out of proportion to its size.

For China, this will be a time once more to use its fabled influence on its small, troublesome neighbour, an influence many Chinese officials fiercely deny, but which, perhaps for lack of anything else, the rest of the world lays great store on. For the US and the EU, it serves as a chilling reminder that the last hardline Stalinist state on the planet might, just, be willing to go all the way. Internal matters in the DPRK don't offer much reassurance. Kim Jong-il, the supreme leader, after disappearing for months, appeared on television earlier this year looking frail and ill. His stroke turned out to have been real. At 67, there is still little clarity about his succession, with the first (despite strong protestations otherwise), second and third son, and even daughter, being marked out as potential successors.

The rising influence of the army worries many analysts, with signs of discontent within the country itself. This raises the question of who, in fact, is really calling the shots. In the end, though, it may be that negotiations are the only option for the DPRK, as they are for everyone else. Seeking all-out conflict would mean, even to the hardline leadership, the end of all they have striven for. For China, it would be horribly destabilising, and for the US, EU, and Russia, the last thing they want. Let's hope that after this nasty shock, the DPRK will revert to acting rationally for a while. There is simply no other option that leads out of the current mess.

Kerry Brown is a senior fellow at the Chatham House Asia Programme

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