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North Korea and the strategic distraction

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

While the first week of 2016 saw dramatic geopolitical shifts and sectarian hardening throughout the Middle East and Muslim world due to the Saudi-Iran confrontation, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, reportedly detonated a miniaturized hydrogen bomb followed by a sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM). These events were a perfect reminder of North Korea’s propensity for using strategic distractions to its advantage.

A strategic distraction is when a country or non-state actor uses a major regional flare-up to conduct its own perfidious actions. Pyongyang’s New Year surprises caught everyone off guard - it should not have.

Its ultra-nationalist Junche ideology is akin to Stalinist Russia or Japanese imperial militarism. Junche helps complete the DPRK narrative that the country is beset by enemies of impure races, especially the United States. North Korea believes it is a success in every facet of domestic and international security relations.

One should not think Pyongyang is isolated, despite reports that DPRK is a failed state. Malaysian interlocutors say the DPRK sends its citizens to Southeast Asia for computer training. South Korean interlocutors say it has a small army of medical doctors deployed to Africa. Pyongyang is also sending laborers under the guise of being Chinese to many of the world’s hot construction spots in order to earn income for the regime back home. In other words, the North Koreans are global, not locked in a cage.

Pyongyang reads the Middle East quite well. Nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 were timed with the standoff between Iran and the West regarding Tehran’s nuclear program

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Pyongyang’s official media announced the successful detonation of an H-bomb to coincide with the upcoming birthday of leader Kim Jong Un. The newscasters produced a handwritten directive purportedly from him: “Let’s start 2016 with the thrilling sound of a first hydrogen bomb blast!”

DPRK political decisions are not sudden nor illogical. Pyongyang reads the Middle East quite well. Nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 were timed with the standoff between Iran and the West regarding Tehran’s nuclear program.

Nuclear proliferation

Nuclear proliferation between the DPRK and Iran are well documented. Tehran relied on the DPRK for help with its nuclear program. North Korea is known to have assisted in fortifying a number of Iranian nuclear facilities against preemptive strikes. The DPRK has also reportedly dispatched hundreds of nuclear experts to work in Iran, and provided key nuclear software. Iranian nuclear scientists are known to frequent Pyongyang.

The DPRK makes clear that it will retain its nuclear capability at all costs. In the wake of last week’s hydrogen bomb test, North Korean media said the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi showed what happens when countries disown their nuclear weapons ambitions: “History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasured sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression.”

Pyangyang’s test and SLCM launch are timely for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which degrades and destroys Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

Missile proliferation by Pyongyang to Iran over the past decades is a known fact. In 1985, North Korea and Iran launched cooperative missile development, with the latter supporting the former’s production of 300-kilometer-range Scud-B missiles. Their deal expanded in the 1990s, when Tehran and Pyongyang began joint development of Iran’s Shahab medium-range missile, which is closely based on North Korea’s nuclear-capable No Dong.

The JCPOA says nothing about ballistic and cruise missile technologies, and the West is finally waking up to this point. The United States is preparing sanctions against Iran in this regard. Gulf states, even more than the West, are well aware of this JCPOA lapse. Iran’s ballistic and cruise missiles are a danger to the region and beyond, and Pyongyang is in our minds constantly, even in the hotbed of the Middle East.

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Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.