North Korea’s Third Nuclear Test: A Muscular Statement

Korean Peninsula North Korea today conducted its third nuclear weapons test at its test site at Punggye-ri in the country’s north, coming in the wake of its successful long-range rocket launch in December and resulting condemnation from the United Nations Security Council via UNSC Resolution 2087.

After every North Korean provocation, journalists and colleagues usually ask me how the international community is likely to react.  This is the most predictable variable in the equation and the answer is: more sanctions.

Why sanctions?  Military force is off the table due to significant constraints on military action in the Korean theatre.  A casual glance at a map of the Korean peninsula will show that Seoul is essentially indefensible against North Korean rockets and artillery due to its close proximity to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

The estimated cost of war and reunification should an American military action escalate to full-scale war is estimated in the trillions of dollars and millions of lives, borne largely by South Korea.  For any rational military strategist, the risks of an armed response to North Korea’s pin-prick provocations are too great.

The pre-existing sanctions regime imposed by previous Security Council resolutions and domestic legal instruments includes measures such as restrictions on North Korean exports, asset freezes applied to specific North Korean citizens and enterprises, and controls on North Korean imports of dual-use technologies.  The sanctions regime is enforced via the Proliferation Security Initiative, a global naval interdiction effort aimed at disrupting WMD trafficking.

The sanctions regime has been largely ineffective in controlling North Korea’s nuclear and missile proliferation activities.  Historically, tightening sanctions has pushed Pyongyang into more belligerent behaviour.  Take for instance the asset freeze imposed on Macau-based bank Banco Delta Asia in 2005, which locked up US$24 million in North Korean funds because of evidence linking it with North Korean counterfeit operations.  In this case, putting on the squeeze led to Pyongyang’s July 2006 missile tests and its first nuclear test the following October.  In the aftermath of the nuclear test it was the US and its regional allies that made concessions in lifting the asset freeze, not the North Korean government.

Despite its stern rhetoric, the expansion of sanctions in UNSC 2087 was relatively mild.  It places travel bans and asset freezes on four officials and six state-owned enterprises from the North Korean space program from Pyongyang’s amorphous network of foreign exchange banks and dummy companies, which exist to subvert international sanctions and fund North Korea’s nuclear and missile proliferation activities.

There is a limit to the number of individuals and state-owned entities in North Korea that can be targeted for sanctions.  One would therefore expect a new round of sanctions to include a crackdown on foreign entities thought to be assisting North Korean sanction-busting.

A stronger sanctions regime also requires cooperation from Beijing, as China is the country with the greatest economic leverage over the DPRK.  Chinese foreign policy elites have been engaged in intense debate over the appropriate approach to North Korea for some time, however it is likely that the official policy of restrained disapproval will continue to carry the day.

Tellingly, sanctions imposed by UNSC Resolution 1718 in the wake of the October 2006 nuclear test had no perceptible effect on North Korea’s trade with China and South Korea.   Indeed the inability of the international community to prevent North Korea testing a nuclear device is evidence of its weak leverage over Pyongyang.  Indeed it is the international community’s weak hand that creates the strategic space for relatively scot-free North Korean provocations.  Nonetheless, economic sanctions are the only realist punitive tool available.

Nuclear test site at Punggye-ri.
Nuclear test site at Punggye-ri.

It is easy to interpret North Korea’s nuclear test as a predictable retaliation against economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council in UNSC Resolution 2087.  Pyongyang’s hostile reaction promised further long-range rocket launches and a nuclear test, a promise it wasted little time in delivering on.

Yet like all servings on the foreign affairs menu, this dish has many ingredients.

To confirm itself as a nuclear weapons power, North Korea must demonstrate that it has developed a deployable nuclear device.  A nuclear bomb has no deterrence value unless it can be reliably and accurately delivered to an enemy target.

Miniaturisation is the next technological milestone for the North’s nuclear scientists in order to produce a nuclear warhead that is deliverable atop a missile.  If the North Koreans were testing a miniaturised device, we would expect test explosions of smaller magnitude, due to the reduced size of the weapon.

However the seismic signature of this blast registered 4.9 on the Richter scale, larger than the reading of 4.52 for the 2009 explosion, which suggests an alternative technical motivation for the test.

Instead, the higher seismic signature points to the testing of a uranium-based device fuelled by fissile material from Pyongyang’s High Enriched Uranium (HEU) program.  Uranium-based nuclear devices are more technologically sophisticated than plutonium bombs, but the uranium feedstock does not have to pass through the numerous processes of the nuclear fuel cycle to be weaponised.  Plutonium is produced as a by-product of burning uranium-based alloys in a nuclear reactor.

HEU installations are more efficient in producing weaponised fissile material and harder to detect because they bypass the reactor burn process, hence their desirability.  The successful test of a uranium-based nuclear device sends a powerful strategic signal to the international community that North Korea is serious about expanding its nuclear arsenal.

Pyongyang’s foreign policy bravado may also be cloaking significant internal changes within the DPRK.
Kim Jong Un’s domestic legitimacy will grow if Pyongyang proceeds with tentative and embryonic economic reforms hinted at during the past year.  First we saw the aborted 6.28 policy in North Korea’s agricultural sector, followed by Kim Jong Un’s new year’s address in which he emphasised developing the country’s scientific and technological capabilities to “fan the flames of the industrial revolution in the new century”.

Any economic reform program in North Korea risks creating new socio-economic cleavages.  New domestic elites with connections to the global economy may develop divergent economic interests from those of the ruling regime.  Grassroots entrepreneurialism could foster dissent from below as households break free from their reliance on the state.

For Kim Jong Un, legitimacy and prestige will be paramount if his government chooses to walk the path of economic adjustments.  One could therefore interpret the nuclear test a muscle-flexing for the domestic audience to provide political space for economic tinkering.

North Korea is a determined nuclear weapons and ballistic missile proliferator.  Its proliferation calculus hinges on a number of economic, strategic, political and bureaucratic motivations all linked to the regime’s over-arching goal of survival.

Even under the newly-minted leadership of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean government is highly unlikely to relinquish its nuclear weapons and missile programs, regardless of any suite of incentives or threats of punishment from the international community, precisely because these programs have become deeply embedded in the political economy of the DPRK state.  Today’s nuclear test must confirm that view for anyone who needed further proof.

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