clock menu more-arrow no yes

Was North Korea's nuclear test precipitated by an incident involving an all-girl pop band?

Members of North Korea's all-female Moranbong Band arrive in Beijing on a trip that would become a major diplomatic incident, precipitating a breakdown in China-North Korea relations, which perhaps contributed to this week's nuclear tests.
Members of North Korea's all-female Moranbong Band arrive in Beijing on a trip that would become a major diplomatic incident, precipitating a breakdown in China-North Korea relations, which perhaps contributed to this week's nuclear tests.
ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty

Americans are nothing if not narcissistic, and so the recent North Korean nuclear test has been portrayed and debated in the US as varying degrees of all about us. It's a message or warning or plea to America; it's a reaction to President Obama's weakness, to George W. Bush's blunders, even, implausibly, to Hillary Clinton's failure to magically fix northeast Asia in her two years as secretary of state.

The truth is that North Korea can pretty safely conclude that the United States is going to be hostile toward it whether or not it conducted this nuclear test; that the US is probably not going to change its policy much one way or the other; and that it will deliver neither concessions, at least not in significant amounts, nor military strikes.

Here's a crazy idea: If North Korea was acting in response to a foreign country, that country was probably China. They're nominally each other's only allies, but relations have been sour and getting worse, often due to nuclear issues. The biggest diplomatic impact of North Korea's last two nuclear tests, in 2009 and 2013, was arguably in its relationship with China, which begrudgingly supports the Hermit Kingdom but also despises and discourages its nuclear provocations.

There's real evidence, and growing support, for the theory that North Korea's nuclear test was driven, at least in part, by its breakdown in relations with China. And that breakdown may have been precipitated by, bizarre as it may sound, a major diplomatic incident involving a North Korean all-female pop band.

Was it about China?

There are three big pieces of evidence that there was something unusual going on here between China and North Korea.

First, in the weeks leading up to the test, Chinese and North Korean relations broke down, including with a major diplomatic incident that embarrassed the notoriously thin-skinned Kim regime. Second, North Korea, for the first time ever, reportedly did not give China advance warning for this nuclear test. And third, after the test, Chinese officials issued unusually strong and high-level condemnations of North Korea's nuclear test.

Ultimately only Kim Jong Un (and some unknown number of regime inner-circle types) knows for sure what motivated this fourth nuclear test. But the theory that it may have been about China — hard as it might be for Americans to stomach the possibility of not being at the center of everything that happens in the world — is gaining credence.

Broadly, the theory goes like this: One of the last things holding back North Korea from setting off nuclear tests like popcorn is the fear of angering China, which it depends on for diplomatic cover at the United Nations Security Council, for economic and political support, and so on. China thus has leverage and has made clear it will use it to punish North Korea especially for nuclear tests.

Therefore, the thinking goes, North Korea defied China because, in some combination, 1) Pyongyang got mad at Beijing and wanted to lash out to send a message; 2) ties broke down for other reasons, China lost some of its leverage, and thus North Korea felt less concerned about pleasing Beijing or avoiding its anger.

Still, this raises the question: If this was all driven in some way by a breakdown in China-North Korea relations so severe it altered Kim's calculus on the nuclear weapons test, then what caused the breakdown? What precipitated their anger?

The Moranbong all-female pop band diplomatic incident theory

You know what, I'm just going to let the New York Times walk you through this one:

Some American officials, declining to speak on the record, speculated that a dustup last month over the treatment of an all-female band that North Korea sent to Beijing might have so angered Mr. Kim that he ordered the test to go ahead.

Just before the band was supposed to perform, Mr. Kim declared that the North possessed hydrogen bomb technology. The Chinese, with no explanation, downgraded the level of officials scheduled to attend the performance, and the band then headed home without performing.

"I know this sounds like a crazy reason to set off a nuclear test," one American intelligence official said. "But stranger things have provoked North Korean action."

The basic timeline is this:

December 2011: Kim Jong Un begins to take power with the death of his father. China is unsure whether Kim will last, and takes a wait-and-see approach.

February 2013: North Korea sets off third nuclear test, infuriating China. Several months of provocations follow. Relations sour throughout the year.

Summer 2015: North Korea has been calm for a bit, and the two countries make gestures at improving ties.

October 2015: China sends a goodwill gift: Liu Yunshan becomes the first member of China's paramount leadership body, the Politburo Standing Committee, to visit North Korea since Kim took power.

December 2015: Kim sends a gift back: The Moranbong Band, North Korea's state-run all-female pop band and Kim's pet project, will travel to China to perform a concert for Communist Party officials.

December 10, 2015: The day the Moranbong Band arrives in Beijing, North Korean state media announces the country has developed its first hydrogen bomb. Chinese leaders feel blindsided, seeing it as a cynical ploy to corner them into accepting the announcement. It is made known that senior Chinese leaders will no longer attend the Moranbong Band shows; lower-level officials will be sent instead.

December 12, 2015: North Korea, insulted and furious, cancels the shows. The Moranbong Band rushes onto a flight home, having not performed.

January 5, 2015: The North Koreans, either no longer willing to hear Chinese warnings against nuclear tests or hoping to deliberately defy Beijing, test a nuclear weapon. They claim it is a hydrogen bomb (no one believes them).

I know what you're thinking: North Korea, acting strangely, provoked into reckless action by a bizarre and seemingly minor slight? Impossible!

Still, I agree, even for North Korea this sounds odd. But it's not just anonymous US officials citing this theory. John Everard, the former British ambassador to North Korea, raised it on Wednesday's BBC Newshour. I am transcribing the exchange in full because it's just the Britishest:

EVERARD: I suspect that this is also to do with North Korea's fraught relations with China. Significantly, before previous tests, North Korea has told the Chinese that they're about to test. On this occasion, say the Chinese they didn't.

Now, a bit of history here, through most of 2015, North Korea's relations with China — its sole ally and major economic benefactor — were distinctly frosty. The Chinese were annoyed with the North Koreas over a lot of their behavior, not least the third nuclear test [in 2013], and had reduced the amount of assistance they were giving North Korea.

Tenth of October, a huge love-in, China and North Korea kiss and make up, and it looks as if the relationship is set. But straight after that, last month, Kim Jong Un says that they'd developed a hydrogen bomb. China is deeply upset and downgrades the level of attendance of Chinese officials at a concert given by Kim Jong Un's hand-picked girl band, the Moranbong Troupe. And North Korea, in response, throws it's toys out of the pram, cancels the tour, and says very disobliging things. And it looks as if this is, in a big way, part of that row.

BBC HOST: It's a very big toy to throw out of the pram.

EVERARD: Isn't it just.

The key thing to understand about this theory is that it wasn't really about the band itself.

Rather, the band's visit was merely the vehicle by which China and North Korea had a high-level and highly embarrassing public meltdown in relations. The Moranbong visit was meant to be a symbol of Kim Jong Un's diplomatic outreach to China, and Beijing swatted it away, thus precipitating a breakdown in relations. Beijing would probably say it was North Korea's December 10 hydrogen bomb announcement that caused the breakdown, but the point is it was all externalized through the Moranbong incident.

The breakdown in relations was, if not a primary driver of North Korea's nuclear test, then at the very least, it would seem, a significant precipitating factor. The fact that North Korea didn't give Beijing advance notice for the test makes it difficult to deny as much.

The idea that a breakdown in relations would lead North Korea to act contrary to Chinese wishes, perhaps deliberately, is not at all implausible or surprising. American allies do this all the time (Saudi Arabia did it just last week, executing a Shia dissident cleric and setting off a regional diplomatic crisis, which the US was none too pleased about).

But because this is the China-North Korea relationship, an alliance so dysfunctional it makes even American alliances look good by comparison, this was all manifested through an all-female North Korean state propaganda pop band.

Here, by the way, is some music from the Moranbong Band. I am not a music critic, but I will just say that these Chinese Communist Party officials may have dodged a bullet here:

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.