North Korea conducts fifth nuclear test: South Korea Defense Ministry reports

North Korea’s claim that it conducted its fifth and most powerful nuclear test has set the international community on edge yet again.

But aside from fear-mongering and posturing — just what does North Korea hope to achieve?

Rather than a bargaining chip used to gain more foreign aid or access to the world stage, it appears that the country’s nuclear weapons program boils down to a matter of dignity and national pride.

First off, it was timed to coincide with North Korea’s National Day on September 9.

In the statement from North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Institute announcing the operation, it said it would continue to develop its weapons for “safeguarding its dignity and right to existence and genuine peace.”

The wording of the announcement also had an emphasis on self-defense, and said it is meant as a protest against the recent punitive measures taken against Pyongyang.

It blamed the “racket of threat and sanctions against the DPRK kicked up by the US-led hostile forces… to find fault with the sovereign state’s exercise of the right to self-defense.”

This is similar to rhetoric seen in May, when state news agency KCNA quoted leader Kim Jong Un as saying the country’s missile testing had “elevated our respect to the world and enemies.”

“For years, we have mocked their nuclear and missile capabilities and 2016 seems to really be about demonstrating what they have and what they can do,” said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the East Asia Nonproliferation Program (EANP).

International hand-wringing

The launch spurred immediate condemnation. South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the test “fanatically reckless.”

“The only thing that Kim Jong Un’s regime can gain from the nuclear tests is stronger sanctions from the international community and its isolation. Such provocation will eventually hasten its path to self-destruction,” she said in a statement.

US President Barack Obama spoke on the phone to both Park and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe about the issue. China said it “strongly opposes” the move.

The stern talk may sound familiar. As with previous tests by Pyongyang, strong objections are made, sanctions are imposed or increased, but North Korea still barrels on with its nuclear program.

“Clearly they (North Korea) don’t care about what we think,” Christopher Hill, the former US ambassador to South Korea told CNN. “They don’t care about our admonitions. They don’t care about joining the international community… they certainly don’t care about the UN Security Council resolutions.”

While further sanctions may be forthcoming, Hill says there needs to be something more to bring about any change with Kim’s regime.

“I think we need to sit down with the Chinese… and say, ‘Together we need to solve this,'” he said. “I think the solving part has to do with more than just sanctions or public admonitions. I think we need to be looking at the dimensions of their (nuclear) programs and what direct means we can take to either slow it down or kill it.”

Not a joke

Friday’s test has erased any doubt that North Korea is serious about its nuclear program.

“Every time we pooh-pooh their short-range missiles … or that they don’t have re-entry vehicles, they sort of roll out those images for us in a kind of propaganda gesture to demonstrate that we do have these capabilities to be taken seriously,” EANP’s Hanham said.

John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, said it’s becoming clear “this is not just a bargaining chip.

“They are not just playing a negotiating game with us.”