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North Korea Is Singing The Same Old Tune. It's Just Turned Up The Bass

07/01/2016 11:37 AM AEDT | Updated 03/08/2016 12:46 AM AEST
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A man watches a television screen showing a news broadcast on North Korea's nuclear test at Seoul Station in Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2015. North Korea said it successfully tested its first hydrogen bomb, the fourth time it has detonated a nuclear device and a move that reignites tensions with neighbors including China after months of calm. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It is 8 am on Tuesday, 12 February, 2013. I am making my way through Seoul Station to get the subway to work. I have been working as a journalist in Seoul for a few weeks and have become accustomed to the endless crush of people whose idea of personal space reminds me of playing 'sardines' as a child.

However, the normal hustle and bustle is slower than usual. Pools of people gather around the TVs hanging from the station walls. People watch, chatter nervously, look over their shoulders. I don't understand what the on-screen news anchor is saying, but it has obviously captivated the city -- and put them on edge.

When I arrive at work, I am quickly filled in. North Korea has announced it has conducted a nuclear bomb test with what it claimed was a miniaturised nuclear device with greater explosive power. A magnitude 5.1 earthquake was measured near the nuclear test site.

The newsroom carries on as usual, preparing the front page story about the bomb threat and working quickly to get a story up on their website. As lunchtime approaches, my colleagues debate the pros and cons of sushi versus bulgogi. I am baffled. After all, Seoul is a mere 56 kilometres from the North Korean border -- a short trip for a nuclear missile or war plane.

Then I reflected.

North Korea's antics are front-page news almost every day in South Korea. Kim Jong-un had threatened "all-out war" and "merciless retaliation" countless times before. At some point, people are going to switch off. Added to this was the widespread scepticism of the extent of North Korea's nuclear arms. February 2013 was the third time the communist state had claimed to have conducted nuclear testing, but little beyond the tremors and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea propaganda machine confirmed this.

The 2006 test is believed to have been a flop and it was three years before a second attempt was made.

After all, we're talking about a nation which can barely afford to feed its own people, where patients freeze in hospital beds with primitive equipment and no heating, and even something as basic as electrical lighting would appear to be scarce.

Later, I would visit the Korean Demilitarised Zone (KDZ), where soldiers from both nations line the border between the two countries. North Korea had established a town on its side of the KDZ, supposedly inhabited by 200 happy and prosperous villagers. But looking through binoculars, the streets appear lifeless. The buildings are empty shells with no glass on the windows. I am told that the electric lights come on at night via an automatic timer.

This is the tale of a nation which has been crying wolf for over 60 years, and it is those closest to it who are the first to stop listening.

This time around, North Korea's threats are primarily targeting the United States. They are listening, along with most of the rest of the world.

Having experienced first-hand the fear and vulnerability that comes from North Korea's bomb threats, I would be the last one to suggest that we should not take this latest test seriously. However, it is important to put things in perspective.

Nuclear power is an important bargaining chip for the rogue state, which otherwise fears foreign incursion. But the question begs to be asked: What would happen if North Korea were to actually use its nuclear power?

Beyond a momentary triumph, the economically weak and politically isolated nation could hope for little. Indeed, it would bring about its own destruction. Having fired the first shot, so to speak, it could not hope to stand up to the combined military might of the Western world.

China has already made it very clear it does not support North Korea's nuclear program, having publicly denounced Tuesday's test. And there are few other nations that would come to North Korea's aid in such an unequal contest.

I believe that this is at the heart of the scepticism of my South Korean friends.

North Korea's political elite may indeed have developed a successful hydrogen bomb and have plans to use it -- although Australia's nuclear policy and arms control specialist Crispin Rovere has his doubts. "The seismic data that's been received indicates that the explosion is probably significantly below what one would expect from an H-bomb test," he noted.

The general consensus seems to be that some kind of nuclear test took place, but it is uncertain whether it was actually a hydrogen bomb.

There is one thing that I am certain of: there's one thing that Kim Jong-un and his pals would enjoy even more than a successfully tested hydrogen bomb, and that is the world-wide pandemonium they have created.

With an economy in tatters, a people repressed and a state-controlled culture that is the laughing stock of the world, they have few other punches to pull.

Meanwhile, the ordinary men, women and children of North Korea continue to suffer - and therein lies the greatest tragedy of all.

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