Starting the year with a bang: the DPRK’s nuclear test

By Jez Littlewood

North Korea – or more formally the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – has announced a fourth nuclear weapons test. It claims the test was of a hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb (H-Bomb) which, if true, would represent a qualitative leap in its capabilities.

From the limited information leaking out so far from official and unofficial sources most analysts doubt the test was of a H-Bomb given seismic monitoring suggests a lower yield than that expected from a thermonuclear weapon. Indeed, the US is indicating the test has not altered its own assessment of the capabilities of the DPRK. However, no one knows at this stage. Nor is the test a “surprise”, out of the blue or unanticipated. Activity was detected in September 2015, and the possibility of a H-Bomb was explored by Jeffrey Lewis’ mid-December piece on 38 North: “a staged thermonuclear weapon is likely more than North Korea can, at the moment, achieve technically, [but] it is a mistake to rule out the aspiration by Pyongyang. An H-bomb might not conveniently fit our perception of North Korea, but perhaps that is Kim’s point.”

So what does the test mean? Put simply, we do not know although past practice from the DPRK on nuclear testing has usually been about signaling to adversaries and demonstrating prowess at home. There are both domestic and international aspects to nuclear testing.

As more information on the actual test becomes available, together with reactions and deliberations within the United Nations Security Council – which has promised new measures – we can expect renewed attention to the Korean Peninsula. This may be exactly what the DPRK regime intends.

Over the next few days expect a lot of speculation based on incomplete or sometimes non-existent information, the usual round of condemnations from world leaders, some debate at the United Nations, and for proponents of certain kinds of responses to use the incident to promote their preferred policies. Those in favour of ballistic missile defences will almost certainly use the incident to promote BMD; those inclined to call for ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) will renew calls for the US to ratify the CTBT. In terms of substance, unless the DPRK conducts further nuclear or ballistic missile tests, or conducts violence against the Republic of Korea, the US, or others, the result is likely to be condemnation, renewed intelligence activity, a short uptick in diplomatic efforts, and not much else.

The fact of the matter is there isn’t much the international community can actually do in response to this unless China and the United States collectively decide to exert significant pressure on the DPRK. The classic dangers of misperception loom here and an already isolated regime might strike out turning an incident (the test) into a crisis that escalates in ways that are unpredictable. Moreover, the stability of the regime is important to China – but also internationally – since an uncontrolled collapse of the DPRK and potential chaos and refugee flight ensuing from it, and the arrival or interference of the US or its allies closer to China’s border has significant implications beyond the nuclear test. As a former Canadian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, also accredited to the DPRK, noted in testimony before the House of Commons in 2013: “North Korea’s actions have been coldly calculated, and it survives through bombast, bombs, missiles, tyrannical control of its people, clever manipulation of its neighbours and the few friends that it has—and China, of course, is in that category. But the potential for miscalculation by North Korea is there, and it’s huge.” China’s relations with the DPRK have cooled, but if the DPRK collapses the international community needs to consider its various weapons of mass destruction, which are believed to go beyond nuclear weapons to include the possibility of biological weapons and suspicions of a chemical weapons stockpile, humanitarian issues, and regional security dynamics.

On the nuclear weapons issue open source analysts suggest the DPRK has between eight to ten nuclear weapons, with some estimates of 12 weapons and possibly up to 20 by the time the Obama Administration is brought to an end. However, the January 2013 Nuclear Notebook over at the Bulletin drew attention to the fact that while “most media accounts state that North Korea has sufficient fissile material to make roughly eight bombs, there is no evidence that it has done so.” This is not to be dismissed outright given that a Congressional Research Service report of May 2015 noted “The IC [Intelligence Community] does not assess that any of the three countries discussed in this report [Iran, Syria, DPRK] has produced such a warhead, although North Korea has conducted several nuclear tests.” Given that the authors noted that non-official sources (media, journals, academics, think tanks) “lack the credibility of official assessments because they are often unsourced or attributed to anonymous government officials, frequently at odds with each other, and unverifiable” it is not to be assumed that the DPRK actually has a nuclear warhead.

It certainly has a nuclear capability given its nuclear infrastructure and past tests, even if they failed or fizzled in some assessments, and the ballistic missile capability: and, it possesses a clear intention of signaling it has a nuclear weapon capability. Thus, while it is safer to presume the DPRK has somewhere between eight to 20 warheads, whether they actually work and can be delivered to a target is far from certain.

Noting this is not to give succour to the apologists of the DPRK regime or offer any support to those more inclined to give in to the threats and brinkmanship of a regime that, in the words of the September 2015 update from the UN Human Rights report on the DPRK, perpetrates systematic and gross human rights violations. Having a bomb is one thing: being able to deliver it to a target is another challenge. This is where the DPRK’s long-standing ballistic missile programme enters the equation and why the expertise of the DPRK in this realm has long been a source of proliferation concern, not least with Iran and Syria, but also – historically – with Pakistan among others back in the days of the AQ Khan proliferation network.

Despite the ambiguity the US intelligence community publicly notes its assessment is of a nuclear capability and in October of 2015 that included second-hand references to the DPRK being able to launch and possibly strike US territory. The most salient aspect of this current incident links back to the February 2015 unclassified Worldwide Threat Assessment from the US Director of National Intelligence, including the statement for the record: “We have long assessed that, in Pyongyang’s view, its nuclear capabilities are intended for deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy.”

Thus, we have an incident. Unless further actions follow this is most likely an effort at coercive diplomacy. How we respond collectively (via the United Nations Security Council) is not likely to change too much based on past practice simply because there is little more that can be done except continued squeezing and isolation of the regime. But, if we squeeze too hard or too quickly an incident could develop into a crisis. Responding to this test will require cool-headed analysis and calibration of a coordinated response, in conjunction with an awareness of the many other pressing security challenges we face. Neither war nor chaos on the Korean Peninsula is in anyone’s interest and a small self-claimed propaganda victory for the DPRK is something we can live with publically.

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