The latest antagonistic actions by North Korea’s mysterious governing regime this week have raised many questions around the world. The nuclear test, missile launches and now Pyongyang’s declaration that it will disregard the 1953 armistice that marked the end of the Korean War have caused international observers to ask why North Korea has chosen now to shake up its neighbours, and what could happen next.

Crikey intern Nicola Heath asked Craig Snyder from Deakin University to give us a better picture of just how seriously we should take this latest North Korean crisis.

How does North Korea’s threat to the world compare to say, Iran’s?

Neither nuclear program of Iran or North Korea threatens the world as these are primarily defensive weapons. No-one has been able to come up with a strategy of how to use nuclear weapons to achieve political objectives except as anything more than a deterrent force. The lesson that North Korea and Iran have taken from the 2003 US invasion of Iraq is that you need nuclear weapons to deter an attack by the US.

How great is the threat towards South Korea? And Australia? And the world?

The threat to South Korea has not changed with the nuclear test. While the North Koreans have been able to test a nuclear device, there is no evidence to say whether this device is in a weaponised form, that is it can be delivered either as a bomb or as a warhead. Indeed, it is very unlikely that they have been able to successfully miniaturise the device to be able to use it as a weapon.

The danger to South Korea is in the large conventional forces of North Korea and the artillery batteries that the North has massed on its side of the Demilitarised Zone that are well within range of the South Korean capital of Seoul.

North Korea’s threat of no longer observing the truce that ended the fighting in the Korean War in the 1950s is not likely to see a return to large-scale conflict in the peninsula but it could lead to localised conflict or clashes along the maritime border.

There is no added danger to Australia or even Japan as the current technology that the North Koreans have is still relatively immature, that is it lacks reliability to function when needed. Moreover, the North Korean military has almost no capability to project power beyond the peninsula.

Is this latest North Korean crisis any different from 2006, when Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test?

The difference here is that the North Koreans are seeking to influence a new administration in the US, but also to confirm that they do indeed have the ability to detonate a nuclear device. The 2006 test was considered by most analysts to have been a failure rather than a demonstration of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

What is the motivation behind Pyongyang’s actions? Internal power play or is North Korea making an international statement?

It is hard to know exactly why the political leaders decided to first test the three-stage ballistic missile in April or to then conduct the nuclear test or the short and intermediate range missiles over the past couple of days. It could be a move by factions within the North Korean political elite to strengthen their position in a period of potential leadership transition, or it could be Kim Jong Il demonstrating that he maintains a firm grip on the leadership.

The motivations for the test could also be aimed at the international community and the US in particular. Here, they are looking for a bilateral agreement with the US that will not be vulnerable to a change in government in the US (either the Presidency or control of Congress). In this agreement the North Koreans want to discuss not disarmament but arms control. In this the North Koreans would be given the status of a nuclear weapon state power with negotiations then focusing on arms reductions and confidence and security building measures between the US and North Korea.

The North Koreans also want the United States to support the current regime as it undergoes its leadership change as well as implements a reform process. The regime’s fear is that as they open up the economy there is a danger that this could lead to the regime’s demise.

What should other governments do to address the North Korean threat? Is disarmament a possibility?

The international community are likely to impose greater sanctions on North Korea and this, along with encouraging the North Koreans to return to the negotiation table, should be the limit of their action.

The United States needs to engage the North Koreans on a bilateral level with no conditions placed on the meeting. The Obama administration has indicated its willingness to engage on a bilateral level through the appointment of a Special Envoy, Stephen Bosworth. Recognising that North Korea is a nuclear armed state rather than a potential proliferation threat is a logical step but the latter option of offering a guarantee to the current regime would run counter to the American commitments to human rights and democracy and would be unlikely have any support from the US Congress which would need to approve any treaty or agreement between the US and North Korea.

Has the US approach changed, or will it change, dramatically under the new administration?

Yes the US has taken a major step in the right direction by appointing the Special Envoy. While the US continues to encourage engagement through the 6-Party talks (US, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia) there is scope for the Special Envoy to engage in bilateral talks with the North.

It is also important for the administration to respond with the threat of sanctions and other tough talk as there is a necessity to demonstrate the new Administration’s willingness to use force should the North ignore the US offers of engagement.

What is China’s role in all of this?

China’s role (as indeed is Russia’s) is to continue to re-enforce to the North Koreans that the recent US policy changes are indeed new and significant and that the US is serious about reaching an agreement.

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Craig Snyder is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University