Nuclear test is chilling tactics from North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jung Un. Photo: Reuters

Key dates in the North Korean calendar are usually marked with a big event, like the most recent successful rocket launched on the 12th of the 12th, 2012.

Now we are just days away from another auspicious date, the 'day of the shining star', the birthday of Kim Jung il; celebrated on February the 16th. So it seems Kim Jung Un wants his father's birthday party to go with a bang.

The birthday of former leader Kim Jung il is approaching. Credit: REUTERS/Dmitry Astakhov

For almost two weeks the North Korean leader and his military chiefs have been issuing threats and warnings of a "higher level" nuclear bomb test and "long range rockets" targeting "the sworn enemy of the Korean people", i.e. the US.

Why does North Korea want to rattle sabres? Because the secretive state also needs to rattle its own cage. To remind its enemies that it feels cornered, but won't give in without a fight.

Talking to North Koreans, it's always striking how they are brought up to believe that US and South Korean tanks are just about to roll over the DMZ; that invasion is imminent.

In late night conversations over a glass of North Korea's surprisingly excellent beer, I've had animated chats with my 'minders': Mr Kim and Mr Song. Both seem to really believe that the Americans are coming, if not today then tomorrow. State propaganda feeds this message to people from birth and of course my 'minder' has to repeat this message to me, otherwise the second 'minder' might report him. It would take more than a couple of beers to get these men straying from the party line.

A single minded fear of being under attack, and bear in mind the North and the South/US are still technically at war, drives North Korean strategy. The leadership uses this defence of its people as justification for the 'military first' policy, which in turn provides a grip on power.

In the last 12-months North Korea's neighbours Japan, South Korea and China have changed leaders. It's now worth noting that young Kim Jung Un, thought to be around 29 years old, is the longest serving leader out of the four countries, three of them economically crucial.

Professor Jin Cang Rong, from Renmin University in Beijing told me he thinks that: "A nuclear test will make the US very nervous, as well as South Korea and Japan, they are bound to react, to do something, this makes the situation much more dangerous."

Nuclear test facility in North Hamgyong Province. Credit: Google/DigitalGlobe

How will China react? Last week the Global Times, a paper owned by the Chinese government printed an editorial suggesting North Korea must "pay a heavy price" if it goes ahead with a test. There's plenty of cynicism about such threats from China. The widely held view is that Beijing would never allow North Korea, a communist ally, to collapse. A failed state, hordes of refugees and the West expanding influence on the Korean peninsular, maybe even US troops stationed on the Chinese border. No way.

So what will China do, well, it did vote for tougher sanctions following North Korea's launch of a rocket in December. In truth those who know North Korea well say that the sanctions don't have Kim Jung Un and the leaders around him quaking in their boots. If sanctions worked we wouldn't be dealing with another nuclear test today.

Since the world's only Communist Dynasty does not do democracy, or that much diplomacy, testing nuclear weapons is North Korea's way of saying we can defend ourselves, you have to take us seriously. Chilling tactics in this last remaining corner of the Cold War.