The Fourth Nuclear Test



We usually start with the caveats about what we don’t know. But we now have enough experience with North Korea’s nuclear tests that the immediate aftermath is pretty easy to foresee. Pressure for sanctions will increase—including secondary sanctions from the US—with debates up to the Security Council about how much China is ultimately willing to do. South Korea’s Trustpolitik faces particular challenges, as President Park joins the chorus for more multilateral sanctions. These sanctions in turn will generate indignant responses from the North. In a reversal of sequence, missile tests will follow rather than precede the nuclear test, and refocus the debate around missile capabilities, missile defenses, prompt strike capabilities and other options.

The more interesting issues are not how parties will react in the short-run—again with the important exception of China—but the broader issue of what Kim Jong Un is trying to achieve, both domestically and with respect to the country’s evolving nuclear strategy. The domestic uses of nuclear weapons in Kim Jong Un’s legitimation strategy were on full display with this test; the strategic issues are more murky. On the one hand, the statement announcing the weapon reiterated North Korea’s ambition to be a responsible nuclear power, including a no-first use policy. The no-first use statement is almost entirely disingenuous. Escalation of a conventional conflict is the most likely risk that North Korea faces and nuclear weapons have a variety of political uses that will shape the force posture and strategy of the US, Japan and South Korea looking forward. Look in particular for an intensification of the discussion on ballistic missile defenses.

For coverage, I give particular kudos to The Telegraph for streaming a variety of interesting sources, from North Korean television announcements to breaking reactions.

The Test: Foreshadowing and Technical Issues

 On December 10, Kim Jong Un made a passing reference to a hydrogen bomb that was largely dismissed (“Our great President Kim Il Sung has turned today’s DPRK into the powerful nuclear state that can make the loud blasting sound of the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb for the self-defense of the country’s autonomy and dignity.”) Since at least 2010, North Korea has made claims about progress on fusion. Satellite analysis at 38North by Jeffrey Lewis from mid-December noted tunneling at the Punggye-ri site that suggested the capacity to undertake one or even more new tests, even though no test was deemed imminent.

However, in our discussion of the New Year's Speech we noted that it made no mention of nuclear weapons at all. One way to interpret the messaging: the byungjin line of simultaneous pursuit of economic development and nuclear weapons is alive and well, with the speech carrying the former message and the test the second; we return to these purposes below.

More will emerge on the technical aspects of the test, but we now have useful background on the fusion weapon issue from Jeffrey Lewis at 38North and immediate reactions from David Albright at "the good ISIS" and Bruce Bennet at RAND (through NKNews). The early estimates of yield from South Korean intelligence suggest this test was roughly comparable to the third test or even lower (7.9 vs. 6 kilotons); Bennett puts the yield of this test somewhat higher (6-10 kilotons). But the point is that with a yield under 10 kilotons, the test would seem to rule out a two stage thermonuclear device (in which a fission device is used to trigger the fusion reaction) unless the North Koreans have purposefully reduced the yields; the announcement referred obliquely to a “smaller H-bomb,” raising the long-standing issue of capacity to miniaturize. Moreover, a two-stage fusion device is more technically demanding. However, Lewis, Albright and Bennett all note the history of an intermediate stage between fission and fusion weapons in which hydrogen isotopes are used to boost yields on conventional fission devices; South Africa pursued this course and Lewis and Albright both provide technical evidence— including from the Syrian reactor at al Kibar—that North Korea may be pursuing production of such isotopes.

The main point however is not in the technical details but in the obvious: North Korea is actively developing its nuclear capacity, and in parallel with its missile capabilities as well. Even if not a thermonuclear weapon, the test enhances North Korean capabilities and signals its political intent.


 Previous tests followed a surprisingly similar script: a missile test or tests generated strong international condemnation, which motivated—or provided the excuse for— an escalation to a nuclear test. For example, the tensions in early 2013 on the peninsula were set in train by the December 12 satellite launch, UN Security Council responses and the third nuclear test that came exactly two months later on February 12.

In this case, there has been a constant drip of stories on the modernization of the missile forces (for example, by John Schilling, Jeffrey Lewis and David Schmerler at 38North), efforts at concealment (CNN) as well as development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capability (Joseph Bermudez also at 38North). But in contrast to the past, there was no signal missile event, suggesting that the sequence will almost certainly be reversed: international condemnation will provide the opportunity for a second-round response through a missile test or tests.

Reaction has been predictable. The press conference by China's foreign ministry spokeswoman reiterated standing declaratory policy against any nuclear test. Deflecting pressure, the press statement also openly admitted that it had no prior warning. Yet one (planted) question seemed to anticipate world reaction: “Can we expect to see anything other than words? Will there be any action on China’s part?” At least the answer did not appeal for calm “on all sides.” But it did little more than reiterate China’s mantra that the Six Party Talks should be restarted; much will hinge on what China is willing to do at the UNSC level and bilaterally to send a signal to North Korea. We don’t expect much in this regard, but would happily be surprised if Pyongyang miscalculated. As we have stated repeatedly, there is little doubt that China has the capability of inflicting adequate pain to change North Korea’s trajectory; the problem has been its unwillingness to take the risk.

This time around, though, China itself could be squeezed. There is very strong secondary sanctions legislation sitting in both branches of Congress that we have reviewed in its earlier versions—critically—at some length. The National Committee on North Korea offers an excellent update on competing versions as of last October and Bruce Klingner at NKNews offers a short, sharp introduction to what more could be done.  The most important components of the “get tough” approach would target North Korea by going after entities that facilitate its trade, most notably Chinese banking institutions and perhaps other corporates with foreign investments in the country including Russian ones. The Obama administration has not supported the legislation, but it has also not shown any interest in Iran-style diplomatic initiatives either. Given the political season and the low cost of coming down on North Korea, we could imagine some compromise that would move forward with secondary sanctions while making appropriate concessions for continued humanitarian activity in the country, an important signal to send.

For South Korea, the test provides yet another barrier to the pursuit of Trustpolitik, in which North Korea’s interest in any case has been minimal and entirely instrumental: could they get the South to re-open the Mt. Kumgang spigot or not? But Park's initial statement highlighted the importance of more coordinated sanctions, a plea to Beijing to step up. A big issue for the South: will the test spark a debate about Kaesong? Should South Korea continue funneling cash through the KIC under these circumstances?

Prime Minister Abe's statement probably summarizes the current state of sentiment as clearly as any other as of this writing, noting the violation of past UNSC resolutions and calling for an emergency UNSC meeting to impose additional measures. As of this writing, we only have the Russian statement in Russian, but Moscow has also been consistent in declaratory policy in opposing North Korean tests.

Unless China surprises—as it has periodically—the UNSC meeting will involve the usual dance of hortatory statements for a return to the Six Party Talks and marginal additions to the designated individuals and entities lists. But unless these are specifically designed to go after firms actually doing significant trade that China is willing to stop, the exercise is little more than Kabuki theatre. The sanctions process is probably at its limit unless the step is taken to go after commercial trade. I am dubious China will let this happen.

The Bigger Question: What are the North Koreans Doing?

 The North Korean statements are reproduced in full below, and the first thing to underline is that nuclear weapons clearly have internal as well as external purposes. The announcement of the test is included in a short statement saying that the test was ordered directly by Kim Jong Un “on behalf of” the Korean Workers Party Central Committee. This formulation is worth noting; it comports with the convening of a Party Congress later in the year, the first since 1980. The longer explanation spends almost as much time on the technological achievement as on its actual strategic purpose. I think it is wrong to believe that North Korea has consistently sought to avoid denuclearization; there have been moments of serious negotiations. But at this juncture, the byungjin line of simultaneous pursuit of economic development and nuclear weapons is working. It is becoming harder and harder to think that North Korea will come to the table unless China changes course. Nuclear weapons have become a critical dimension of the regime’s and party’s DNA.

With respect to strategic purpose, many games are being played. First, the doubts about North Korean willingness to trade away its weapons are compounded by its earnest effort to portray itself as a responsible nuclear power. According to the longer statement, this status comes with obligations such as non-proliferation and—more puzzling—a statement of no first use, which the United States does not maintain vis-à-vis North Korea because of its failure to abide by its commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The claim to “responsible nuclear power” status is precisely why it is so hard to enter into negotiations with the country; would doing so acknowledge this self-proclaimed status?

More confusing is the no first use claim. North Korea repeats endlessly that it is vulnerable to nuclear threat from the US. Yet the most likely scenario for war is the escalation of a conventional conflict in which the US and the South could prevail without using nuclear weapons. Under such circumstances, with the regime at risk, could we be assured that North Korea would not use a demonstration strike or a variety of other probes—including targeting US assets in the region—in order to stave off defeat? The short answer is “no.” As a result, we are going to see a renewed attention to a variety of strategic and force deployment questions coming out of this test. First up is the deployment of THAAD to South Korea, but that is only the beginning. Also on the agenda will be ongoing cooperation with Japan on intelligence sharing and ballistic missile defense and the development of prompt strike conventional capabilities that would expand options if war were to occur. We will be revisiting these issues in a subsequent post, but Brad Roberts’ outstanding new book, The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (here) is a great place to start.


WPK Central Committee Issues Order to Conduct First H-Bomb Test

Pyongyang, January 6 (KCNA) -- Kim Jong Un, first secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea, first chairman of the National Defence Commission of the DPRK and supreme commander of the Korean People's Army, issued an order to conduct the first H bomb test of Juche Korea on December 15, Juche 104 (2015) on behalf of the Workers' Party of Korea and then signed the final written order on Jan. 3, Juche 105 (2016).

The DPRK government issues a statement on the first H-bomb test of Juche Korea conducted under the strategic resolve of the Workers' Party of Korea.

DPRK Proves Successful in H-bomb Test

Pyongyang, January 6 (KCNA) -- The DPRK government issued the following statement Wednesday:

There took place a world startling event to be specially recorded in the national history spanning 5 000 years in the exciting period when all service personnel and people of the DPRK are making a giant stride, performing eye-catching miracles and exploits day by day after turning out as one in the all-out charge to bring earlier the final victory of the revolutionary cause of Juche, true to the militant appeal of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK).

The first H-bomb test was successfully conducted in the DPRK at 10:00 on Wednesday, Juche 105 (2016), pursuant to the strategic determination of the WPK.

Through the test conducted with indigenous wisdom, technology and efforts the DPRK fully proved that the technological specifications of the newly developed H-bomb for the purpose of test were accurate and scientifically verified the power of smaller H-bomb.

It was confirmed that the H-bomb test conducted in a safe and perfect manner had no adverse impact on the ecological environment.

The test means a higher stage of the DPRK's development of nuclear force.

By succeeding in the H-bomb test in the most perfect manner to be specially recorded in history the DPRK proudly joined the advanced ranks of nuclear weapons states possessed of even H-bomb and the Korean people came to demonstrate the spirit of the dignified nation equipped with the most powerful nuclear deterrent.

This test is a measure for self-defence the DPRK has taken to firmly protect the sovereignty of the country and the vital right of the nation from the ever-growing nuclear threat and blackmail by the U.S.-led hostile forces and to reliably safeguard the peace on the Korean Peninsula and regional security.

Since the appearance of the word hostility in the world there has been no precedent of such deep-rooted, harsh and persistent policy as the hostile policy the U.S. has pursued towards the DPRK.

The U.S. is a gang of cruel robbers which has worked hard to bring even a nuclear disaster to the DPRK, not content with having imposed the thrice-cursed and unheard-of political isolation, economic blockade and military pressure on it for the mere reason that it has differing ideology and social system and refuses to yield to the former's ambition for aggression.

The Korean Peninsula and its vicinity are turning into the world's biggest hotspot where a nuclear war may break out since they have been constantly stormed with all nuclear strike means of the U.S. imperialist aggressor troops, including nuclear carrier strike group and nuclear strategic flying corps.

While kicking up all forms of economic sanctions and conspiratorial "human rights" racket against the DPRK with mobilization of the hostile forces, the U.S. has made desperate efforts to block its building of a thriving nation and improvement of the people's living standard and "bring down its social system".

The DPRK's access to H-bomb of justice, standing against the U.S., the chieftain of aggression watching for a chance for attack on it with huge nukes of various types, is the legitimate right of a sovereign state for self-defense and a very just step no one can slander.

Genuine peace and security cannot be achieved through humiliating solicitation or compromise at the negotiating table.

The present-day grim reality clearly proves once again the immutable truth that one's destiny should be defended by one's own efforts.

Nothing is more foolish than dropping a hunting gun before herds of ferocious wolves.

The spectacular success made by the DPRK in the H-bomb test this time is a great deed of history, a historic event of the national significance as it surely guarantees the eternal future of the nation.

The DPRK is a genuine peace-loving state which has made all efforts to protect peace on the Korean Peninsula and security in the region from the U.S. vicious nuclear war scenario.

The DPRK, a responsible nuclear weapons state, will neither be the first to use nuclear weapons nor transfer relevant means and technology under any circumstances as already declared as long as the hostile forces for aggression do not encroach upon its sovereignty.

There can neither be suspended nuclear development nor nuclear dismantlement on the part of the DPRK unless the U.S. has rolled back its vicious hostile policy toward the former.

The army and people of the DPRK will steadily escalate its nuclear deterrence of justice both in quality and quantity to reliably guarantee the future of the revolutionary cause of Juche for all ages.

Juche Korea will be prosperous forever as it holds fast to the great WPK's line of simultaneously pushing forward the two fronts.

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