North Korea's Nuclear Provocation
Today North Korea claimed to have successfully tested its first hydrogen bomb. Though experts have not verified this claim, it corresponds to a 5.1 magnitude seismic event recorded on Tuesday. The purported test, which would signify a significant increase in North Korea’s nuclear capability, has been widely condemned by world leaders.
Q1: North Korea claims to have tested a “thermonuclear” device. If true, how significant would that be?
A1: North Korea’s leader has claimed a number of advanced nuclear capabilities, including boosted yields, warhead miniaturization, and sea launch capability. With only the seismic detection information in hand, there is little this most recent test can tell us to prove or disprove such claims, and expert opinion is running skeptical. If air samples are available and collected, they could provide better insight, but such samples are difficult to collect and not always available. The absence of a much larger explosion by itself does not tell us much. North Korea does not necessarily need to test a “full up weapon” to glean the most important scientific and technical information necessary to support its weapons program, and it has significant incentives not to “waste” more of its fissile material stocks than absolutely necessary.
Of course such technical information is critically important to U.S. planners and experts who follow the North Korean nuclear program, and analysis will continue for weeks. But on the international political stage, “proving” Kim Jong-un right or wrong on this particular claim shouldn’t be that important when it comes to taking action. Kim’s statements and range of provocative behaviors, capped by this most recent nuclear pronouncement, should tell the international community most of what it needs to hear. North Korea fully intends to increase sophistication and delivery capability of its nuclear arsenal and is making steady progress in doing so. The world must respond.
Q2: Can international reactions to this most recent test help drive North Korea to the negotiating table, perhaps using the Iran nuclear deal as inspiration?
A2: First, in the near term the test makes negotiations harder not easier. North Korea cannot appear to be rewarded for such provocative behavior. The international community, through the United Nations, will have no choice but to respond with “sticks” such as additional sanctions before turning to “carrots.” The international community’s ability to communicate consensus and resolve on the threat to international peace and security posed by North Korea’s nuclear adventurism is an essential precondition to any diplomatic path.
Also, further comparisons to the situation in Iran that allowed for a nuclear deal are probably best left in the past. This latest test just drives home the tremendous differences between the two countries and their nuclear programs. The differences between the two cases are profound. As compared to Kim Jong-un’s high tolerance for risk and brinkmanship, Iranian leadership proved to be more cautious and was influenced by international sanctions. In military terms, Iran did not have 75,000+ U.S. forces (in South Korea and Japan) deployed within 800 miles of its border. While well on its way, Iran did not possess an existing nuclear weapons capability. In contrast, North Korea possesses an extant and expanding nuclear weapons arsenal, having completed four nuclear tests that demonstrate capacity, resolve, and support of technical advancement for its nuclear program. Finally, North Korea has also established a complex range of other weapons of mass destruction (WMD)–related programs, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), cyber capabilities, and biological and chemical weapons—capabilities far in excess of those associated with Iran. So in the case of North Korea, the stakes, the risks, and the size of the task are all exponentially more challenging. Negotiated denuclearization may represent the ultimate victory, but in the meantime the United States and the rest of the international community are going to have to up their game with regard to deterring, containing, and responding to the North Korean nuclear threat.
Q3: What are the implications of North Korea’s test for U.S. alliances in East Asia and extended deterrence?
A3: Japan and South Korea—two critical allies in Asia, each with their own defense treaties with the United States—are undoubtedly looking to us for assurances that we would intervene with military aid should they be attacked by North Korea. Both nations rely upon the United States’ nuclear extended deterrence commitment to respond to the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program. It is, indeed, at least partially the credibility of this commitment that keeps each security alliance intact and dissuades Japan and South Korea—nations with significant advanced technical capabilities and economic resources—from considering the nuclear option themselves. These alliances have come under strain in recent years, with some in all three countries questioning whether these guarantees continue to have value. North Korea’s persistent provocations, most visibly through nuclear tests, have only further chipped away at the desire to remain reliant on the United States’ promises. The United States must now respond in tandem with Japan and South Korea: failing to do so in the face of this newest test would not only erode security conditions in East Asia, it would also threaten to weaken the international nonproliferation regime. The United States might look to this latest provocation as an opening for promoting recent positive trends in bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea in order to improve trilateral cooperation.
Q4: What are some recommendations and next steps for the United States?
A4: For now the world is focused on further sanctions. However, North Korea is already a pariah state with a devastated economy. Additional sanctions may have political value as a statement of resolve, but it is hard to see how they can generate impacts that are meaningful and coercive. Given North Korea’s erratic and risk-tolerant behavior, U.S. and regional responses must be accompanied by more effective counter-provocation and counter-escalation strategies and redoubled efforts to improve our deterrence posture and messaging toward North Korea. There are some concrete steps the United States can take. First, continue to pursue strong action through the UN Security Council, focusing consequences not only on North Korea itself but increasingly on any other member of the international community that fails to fully implement all relevant resolutions and/or supports or enables the North Korean nuclear program in any way. Second, consider enhanced detection technologies that can support transparency and confidence-building measures and reduce chances of miscalculation. Perhaps such efforts could include the overt emplacement and monitoring of enhanced detection and sample collection platforms along the demilitarized zone, the Chinese border, or nearby international waters. Additionally, we should diversify the means and mechanisms by which the United States can signal and message to both assure allies and deter escalation. This can include demonstrations of capability, joint exercises, enhanced military support in areas like missile defense, as well as clear, straightforward statements of our commitment to security in the region. Finally, the United States should improve capabilities to locate, secure, disable, or remove nuclear weapons in the face of instability or conflict. Kim Jong-un should not feel that his nuclear weapons and supporting delivery systems are off-limits or beyond reach.
Rebecca Hersman is director of the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.