The second successful underground test of a nuclear weapon by the grotesque North Korean dynasty has sent shock waves around the globe. Country after country have queued up to offer their condemnation. Even China, the one state that could be described as nearest to being North Korea's ally said it was resolutely opposed to the further testing and encouraged it to return to the disarmament talks (these talks involve China, South Korea, USA, Japan and Russia). Ratcheting the tension up further it has fired two short range missiles off its east coast, which come on top of three other missile tests that also took place on Monday. In response South Korea has announced it's joining a US-led scheme to stop and search cargo vessels suspected of ferrying nuclear technologies - the North has said it would regard a stop and search of its vessels as an act of war.
Without a doubt the North Korean regime is a deeply unpleasant police state ruled by a seriously unbalanced leader and a clique of paranoid militarists. But even here things do not occur in a vacuum. In terms reminiscent of 1930s high Stalinism, the latest communique on the disarmament talks ('Lee Myung Bak group accused of dancing to tune of the US', here) says
The nuclear test and the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles are the options taken by the DPRK to defend itself from the military threat increased by the imperialist forces for aggression and firmly defend the peace on the peninsula and the security of the nation. The DPRK will bolster up the war deterrent for self-defense in every way along the road already chosen by itself for the peace on the peninsula and the security of the nation no matter how others may speak ill of it as long as the U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK and its nuclear threat and its lackeys the Lee Myung Bak war-like forces' moves to ignite a war against the north persist. The DPRK cannot take other option than the one mentioned above now that the hostile forces use the six-party talks as a lever for infringing upon the sovereignty of the DPRK, disarming and stifling it.North Korea has a point. The Cold War may be long consigned to the history books but the militarisation of the Korean peninsula has continued apace since the Soviet Union's collapse. At present (according to Global Security) the US army has 29,000 personnel stationed in the south, with a further 587,000 South Korean troops. This is backed by 2,300 tanks, 790 aircraft and 162 war ships. On the surface these appear outclassed by the North's forces - 1.12 million troops (4.7 million in reserve), 3,500 tanks, 1.500 planes and 420 warships. However, the quality of their hardware is inferior to that available to US-led forces nor is it likely the North's industrial base would be able to adequately resupply its forces during a shooting war. And the leadership know this - hence the premium it has put on developing missile and nuclear technology. The North is also rumoured to possess a cache of chemical and biological weaponry.
The roots of North Korean militarism lie in a mix of Cold War geopolitics and the reluctance of the Soviet Union to provide for its defence or share military technology with the regime after the Sino-Soviet split at the beginning of the 60s - a position confirmed to Kim Il Sung with the USSR's perceived betrayal of Cuba after the Cuban missile crisis. After the USSR collapsed the North attempted to reach some accommodation with the US, proposing a non-aggression pact with the US, which the latter rejected in favour of the six party disarmament talks - all the while maintaining its own forces in the south. For a regime solely concerned with its own survival, with very few friends and faced by the world's only military superpower's desire to see it neutralised, it is easy to understand how the North's geopolitical position helps explain its militarism. Just because you're paranoid does not mean they're not out to get you.
If war came to the Korean peninsular it would be absolutely devastating and at the very least threaten to drag Japan into what would be, for the North, an unwinnable conflict. If the US was really concerned about turning the militarist tide it would set about withdrawing its troops. Only once its presence has been removed from the South can real progress be made in demilitarising the Koreas and the road opened to a peaceful reunification.