Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear bomb test this past Tuesday, February 12. As usual, the United Nations Security Council denounced North Korea’s behaviour. It goes without saying that world opinion is cold towards North Korea at the best of times. Being the only country to test nuclear weapons since Pakistan and India has not burnished Pyongyang’s reputation.
However, the Security Council’s reaction was quite predictable. More interesting is the question of whether this actually changes anything in northeast Asia and the rest of the Pacific?
The technical details of the test matter in this case. Seismic evidence suggests the explosive yield was considerably larger than the 2006 and 2009 tests. This is important for North Korea, since nuclear tests are not purely political acts. They are important technical exercises, and for North Korea’s weapon engineers, whose 2006 and 2009 tests may have yielded “fizzles” (explosions that missed their yield targets), Tuesday’s explosion (which may have been as half as powerful as the Nagasaki bomb) was an important achievement.
More important to the rest of the world was the size of the device and whether it was made from plutonium or highly enriched uranium.
North Korea’s official news agency (KCNA) claims the test was “of a smaller and light A-bomb unlike the previous ones, yet with great explosive power.” While Pyongyang was remarkably open about the failure of its April 2012 Unha-3 space launch vehicle/ballistic missile test, getting the truth out of KCNA news reports is generally akin to reading tea leaves. However, last December Pyongyang did successfully launch an Unha-3 rocket. This means that Korean miniaturization claims should be taken seriously. Building a nuclear explosive is one challenge. Building one small enough to fit atop a ballistic missile is another thing, and a fairly serious engineering challenge. So far, there is little (if any) public evidence that North Korean engineers have managed that task. But if and when they do, it will mean that North Korea has something approaching a fully militarized nuclear capability. This will certainly raise anxieties in Japan and South Korea, and will probably prompt calls within the US to take a harder line with Pyongyang. At this point North Korea’s claims that they’ve miniaturized their nuclear weapon designs is a serious signal that they are trying to do so, but isn’t evidence that they’ve been successful.
The second technical issue is: what was the bomb made of? North Korea has a limited supply of weapon-usable plutonium, as the 5 MW reactor and plutonium separation facilities at Yongbyon have not been operating for years. North Korea probably had no more than 40 kg of separated plutonium before the February 12 test, and, if the weapon that was exploded on Tuesday was made of plutonium, they now have at least two kilograms less. That would be welcome news, since every gram of fissile material they blow up in tests gives them one less (albeit tiny) bargaining chip at the negotiation table.
If the weapon was made of uranium this is more concerning. It will give us some idea about how well developed North Korea’s centrifuge program is, and it could suggest plans to build a larger arsenal. Given the lack of international monitoring of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program, it is difficult to precisely assess how much uranium Pyongyang is enriching. While North Korea’s uranium enrichment program has been public knowledge for a while now, Pyongyang has claimed that it is meant to fuel civilian light water nuclear reactors. If the weapon proves to be a miniaturized bomb, then we can tentatively conclude that North Korea is well on the way to having a deliverable nuclear weapon.
What are the test’s political implications? Would a missile-deliverable nuclear bomb mean that North Korea is a threat to international peace and security, as my colleague Paul Heinbecker argues? Yes and no. If atmospheric monitoring reveals that the weapon was a plutonium bomb, I would argue that this is largely an attempt by Pyongyang to get the US to engage in direct bilateral talks. North Korea has long demanded one-on-one talks with the US, presumably because they believe they will be in a better position to extract economic or security concessions out of the United States compared to the multilateral Six Party talks. If the bomb proves to be made from uranium, the above still applies, with the addition that Pyongyang is probably aiming to further develop its nuclear arsenal.
A fully nuclear-armed North Korea, in and of itself, is not particularly threatening. Despite the regime’s bizarre and aggressive behaviour, insider accounts of US-DPRK diplomacy reveal North Korean officials to be rational, sensible at times, and fully aware of the gravity of what they are doing. Pyongyang will not use a nuclear weapon against the United States, except perhaps in an act of utter desperation or in error during the midst of a militarized crisis. Militarily, North Korea is no match for the US, let alone Japan or the Republic of Korea. Accordingly, North Korea relies on a crude deterrent of artillery and rockets aimed at civilian centres in South Korea. Nuclear weapons are a logical extension of that deterrence strategy, and a useful bargaining chip that they could potentially trade for major concessions from the West. Think extortion, not Armageddon.
However, a more nuclear-capable North Korea does pose other risks. This test will likely spur on hawks in Seoul and Tokyo. We could see calls in both South Korea and Japan to take a more assertive policy stance against North Korea. The US doesn’t have to just manage the tensions between itself and North Korea, but also needs to reassure its allies (who are the most vulnerable and likely targets for North Korean aggression) that the US remains committed to containing and deterring the DPRK. This third test might also suggest that North Korea is taking a more aggressive defensive posture in general. If short-or medium-range missile tests, or North Korean military maneuvers follow the test in the coming weeks, this could look like aggression from Seoul and Tokyo, even if Pyongyang means them to be deterrence exercises. If North Korea builds a nuclear bomb that can be mounted in an Unha rocket, we can expect to see members of the US congress push President Obama (and his successor) to take a more bellicose line against Pyongyang.
Ratcheting up tensions in the region ultimately works in Pyongyang’s favour though. The more anxious Japan and Korea become, the more likely the US is to pay attention to the Korean peninsula. While the US government might like to ignore this latest provocation so as to avoid rewarding bad behaviour, if Japan and South Korea take their own countermeasures against North Korea, it is not clear if the US can afford to stand on the sidelines. Ignoring North Korea while Japan and South Korea respond on their own will harm the credibility of the much-touted “Pacific Pivot,” by raising questions in Asia’s capitals (including Beijing) about the US’ commitment to maintaining political and military dominance in the Pacific basin. The US has said that maintaining its presence in the Pacific Ocean is a top priority. Washington will have to back those words with action, if they don’t want to tarnish their credibility in the region.
Finally, I’ll conclude with a brief word about China’s role (or more accurately, lack thereof) in this affair. While China has taken a slightly tougher line on this latest nuclear test compared to the last two, we shouldn’t expect a sea-change in Chinese policy. When the North Korean regime falls apart, China will inevitably bear a large portion of the costs (whether it be feeding and housing refugees or funding a development bank), and they will likely disagree with South Korea about some of the details of reunification. Ensuring an orderly, slow collapse is in China’s interest. Tightening economic sanctions to the point of complete (and sudden) economic collapse is not a popular option in Beijing, and for obvious reasons. No doubt the Chinese government is dismayed at this test (as it clearly spells out the limits of Chinese influence over the Kim regime), but their practical and dominant interest is in stability and predictability on the Korean peninsula. Don’t be surprised by more Chinese denunciations of the test, but don’t expect China to crack down too severely on sanctions violators.