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.

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How do you solve a problem like Korea?

Solving a problem always requires that you know what the problem is in the first place. With the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2094, this is a good time to ask: what does the world (or at least the United States and Europe) want from North Korea? In other words, what’s the foreign policy goal here?

As UNSC 2094 makes clear, the short answer is to get North Korea to end its nuclear weapon program. This would mean to stop testing nuclear weapons, verifiably dismantle any nuclear bombs it has already built, stop producing fissile material, accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (since it withdrew in 2003) and for good measure, stop testing and developing long-range ballistic missiles. South Korea has held this up as a policy goal since 1992 and President Park Geun-hye reiterated it this week. The United States also supports this goal, and since the second round of the Six Party Talks, getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapon activities has become most countries’ and commentators’ default goal. The need to “denuclearize” North Korea has become common wisdom.

Is it a realistic goal though? Even if nuclear weapons are impractical and using one would invite regime-ending retaliation, it is very likely that Pyongyang sees its nuclear weapon program as its ace-in-the-hole. While denuclearizing North Korea seems to be everyone’s preferred goal today, only a decade ago the United States government debated – among other options – making regime change its chief goal. This is not lost on Kim Jong-un or his national security advisors. Demanding that North Korea discard its nuclear weapons means that Pyongyang loses the ability to play a dangerous brinksmanship game, where it ratchets up tensions and creates a risk that things will spiral out of control, ending in a nuclear calamity. While North Korea would still have a potent arsenal of conventional (and chemical arms) if it gave up its atomic bombs, these pale in comparison to the threat (even if it is purely psychological) that nuclear weapons carry.

It is also important to remember that nuclear weapons did not magically appear in North Korea one day. North Korea’s nuclear weapon program was gestated and born in a threatening security environment. While North Korea is responsible for practically all the violence along the peninsula in the last decade, we should never lose sight of the massive material imbalance between South and North Korea, let alone North Korea and the United States. Getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons without solving the underlying incompatibilities in South Korean, American, Chinese, and North Korean interests (throw Japan in there too, if you like) is a long shot, and frankly, probably not realistic.

I’ll conclude this post by noting that states reverse their nuclear weapon policies all the time. The empirical record is very clear on that. However, it is also very clear that the longer a nuclear program stays intact, the more autonomous is becomes within the state, and the worse a state’s relations are with others, the lower the likelihood of a policy reversal becomes. If there was a time to go all out and try to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapon policy, it was in the early 1990s, which is exactly what South Korea and the US tried. That policy track fell apart ten years ago. Denuclearization has been tried, and it has failed. It might be time to redefine the problem and look for new solutions.

Simon Palamar

Ph.D. Candidate

What does North Korea’s Third Nuclear Weapon Test Bode for the Future?

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. Continue reading