Why A Third Nuclear Test Might Not Be As Imminent As You Think

A close look at North Korean media output suggests a nuclear test might not be as imminent as you would think.
February 8th, 2013
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As reports continue to suggest prospects of a North Korean nuclear test are imminent, headlines and predictions in international media are becoming increasingly bold as Pyongyang holds back on detonating a device. But on what basis does the international community think that a nuclear test is imminent?

The bolder the predictions of North Korea’s third nuclear test become, the greater the pressure to come up with a solution for South Korean and American diplomats, policy-makers, and military planners.  But while predictions of the ‘imminent’ nature of North Korea’s nuclear test exponentially grow by the day, a comparison of Pyongyang’s recent statements with those made in the advent of the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests reveal some interesting discrepancies that suggest the situation may be more nuanced than it seems.

TEST NUMBER 1 – OCTOBER 2006

Pyongyang’s rationale to test a nuclear weapon first arose in September 2005, when just a day after a major denuclearization breakthrough at the Six Party Talks, the U.S. Treasury imposed restrictions on Banco Delta Asia (BDA) of Macau.  Through these restrictions, the Treasury froze $25 million of North Korean assets, alleging them to be a “money laundering concern”.  North Korea responded by suggesting the freeze on the funds was tantamount to an attack on its sovereignty.

With worsening relations, Pyongyang test-launched a number of missiles just in time for America’s Independence Day in 2006.  In return, the U.S. tightened existing financial sanctions, and urged financial institutions worldwide to “think carefully about the risks of doing any North Korea-related business” later that year. In retaliation, the DPRK announced in October 2006 that it would conduct a nuclear test, eliciting warnings from the five other Six-party Talks states.

The Warning Signs

North Korea became the first state in international history to ever give public warning that it would test a nuclear device. On October 3, 2006, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry published an explicit warning via state media outlet KCNA detailing what would happen,

The U.S. extreme threat of a nuclear war and sanctions and pressure compel the DPRK to conduct a nuclear test, an essential process for bolstering nuclear deterrent, as a corresponding measure for defence.

The Outcome

Just six days after the warning North Korea conducted its first ever nuclear test.


TEST NUMBER 2 – MAY 2009

Weeks prior to the May 2009 nuclear test, North Korea failed in an attempt to put a satellite in orbit using a modified Taepodong rocket (‘Unha’), a move possibly designed to raise the attention of the incoming Obama administration, but more likely timed to chime with domestic concerns. Key players in the international community reacted negatively to the attempted launch and the UN condemned it as being in contravention of Security Council Resolution 1718 (which prohibited the testing of ballistic missiles).

The DPRK reacted in a surprisingly volatile way to April 2009 UN condemnation, immediately ending its participation in the Six Party framework and, as was the case in October 2006, made an explicit threat to bolster its nuclear deterrent.

The Warning Signs

Taking exception to a UN Security Council statement that universally condemned its April rocket attempt, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry warned on April 29, 2009 that unless the Security Council made an immediate apology, the DPRK would:

Be compelled to take additional self-defensive measures in order to defend its supreme interests…[including] nuclear tests and test-firings of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Outcome

Less than one month later on May 25, 2009, North Korea conducted its second ever nuclear test and launched two ballistic missiles the same day.


THE TEST THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN – MAY 2012

Following North Korea’s failed April 2012 satellite launch, the United Nations Security Council promptly convened to formulate a response. Because the launch was in violation of Resolutions 1718 and 1874, members of the Security Council unanimously agreed to a statement strongly condemning the launch, which it said had caused “grave security concerns” in Northeast Asia.

The Warning Signs

Following the failed launch and condemnation from the Security Council, both experts and numerous media sources suggested that a third nuclear test would be imminent. Their suspicions were based on conclusions drawn from a combination of satellite imagery analysis, leaks from unnamed diplomatic sources, and North Korea’s record of behavior in advance of the May 2009 test.

The Outcome

Acutely aware of heightened media reporting on a potential third test, Pyongyang finally made clear its intentions not to test a device nearly two months later, with the DPRK Foreign Ministry condemning South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s defamation of their failed satellite launch:

Through those provocations the group seeks to rattle the nerves of the DPRK in a bid to cause it to conduct a nuclear test, though such a thing is not under plan at present.


A LOOMING THIRD NUCLEAR TEST? – JANUARY 2013

North Korea’s successful December 2012 satellite launch, timed to coincide with the anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, brought about fresh UN Security Council condemnation in the form of a Resolution 2087, released on January 24, 2013.

While North Korea’s previous two rocket attempts didn’t lead to any further sanctions, January’s Resolution 2087 tightened existing penalties and designated several entities and individuals directly tied to North Korea’s nuclear weapons activities.

The Warning Signs

Press wires were set ablaze regarding an imminent third nuclear test within 24 hours of Security Council Resolution 2087.  Rumours started when North Korea’s National Defense Commission (NDC) published a warning via KCNA that said,

We do not hide that a variety of satellites and long-range rockets which will be launched by the DPRK one after another and a nuclear test of higher level which will be carried out by it in the upcoming all-out action…

Then on January 26, O Yong Ho, a seemingly unknown officer in the Korean People’s Army (KPA), was quoted by the KCNA as saying,

We will counter the U.S. high-handedness and arbitrariness with real action to show the mettle of the Koreans. The DPRK should promptly stage a nuclear test and continue to launch long-range missiles.

A Rodong Sinmun editorial published the same day further contributed to a rise in tensions. It read:

A nuclear test is the demand of the people and no other choice can be made…It is the people’s demand that there should be something even greater than a nuclear test,” said the newspaper, the mouthpiece of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party.

Then a KCNA commentary on February 5th warned that:

The DPRK has drawn a final conclusion that it will have to take a measure stronger than a nuclear test to cope with the hostile forces’ nuclear war moves that have become ever more undisguised. This is the demand of the people.

 ***

While the above excerpts have significantly raised expectations of third nuclear test, there is a critical difference between them and warnings from previous years: the DPRK Foreign Ministry was not responsible for any of them. In fact, the only statement made by North Korea’s Foreign Ministry regarding nuclear weapons came on the eve of the Security Council Resolution, reading:

The DPRK will take steps for physical counteraction to bolster the military capabilities for self defence including the nuclear deterrence both qualitatively and quantitatively to cope with the evermore undisguised moves of the U.S. to apply sanctions and pressure against the DPRK.

When compared with the firmer wording of the Foreign Ministry’s 2006 and 2009 warnings, the above reads as comparatively vague and ambiguous.

It is not merely North Korea’s own pronouncements that have been fueling speculation of a nuclear test this time. While the formalities of North Korea announcing a third test now look very different to events in 2006 and 2009, satellite evidence and diplomatic leaks have been compounding the notion that, despite these significant differences, a test is nevertheless imminent.

Aware of the exact times high-resolution imaging satellites cross its territory, North Korea fooled the international community in December by leading intelligence officials and satellite experts to believe that their Unha-3 rocket launch would be delayed for technical problems. In retrospect, it now seems that the North Koreans merely re-positioned equipment at the test site, potentially aware global expectations could be carefully manipulated by doing so.

In recent days, much media coverage citing satellite imagery to support its claims has suggested a nuclear test will be imminent. Speculation has been fueled by photographs showing entrances to tunnels at the test site being covered, “stemming materials” visible that could help contain an explosion, and cars seen that might indicate a “VIP visit”.

Meanwhile, the KCNA has reported on a number of “enlarged meetings” and “big decisions” made by Kim Jong Un, while undercover reports from within North Korea have suggested the nation is under Martial Law and some overseas diplomats have been recalled.  Furthermore, the upcoming celebration of Kim Jong Il’s birthday (February 16th) would appear to be a logical time to carry out a test since North Korea’s nuclear program is often cited as one of the late dictators major accomplishments when in power.


Conclusions?

With a delicate presidential transition underway in South Korea, the unfolding events come at a particularly troublesome time for Park Geun-hye, set to become the first ever female Korean leader on February 25th. Any nuclear test would present her with her first major foreign policy crisis, potentially necessitate a military response, and seriously impinge her capacity to engage North Korea throughout the short to medium term. At first glance it is therefore hard to understand why North Korea would be motivated to conduct a third test, because doing so would merely cut off potential aid in a potentially destabilizing way that could have long-term implications. However, a closer look suggests otherwise.

Given the stark differences in build up to the 2013 nuclear test and those which took place in 2006 and 2009, it is entirely possible that current events are being managed by North Korea to extract as many concessions as possible at a time when political changes are taking place in South Korea. Piling on the pressure of a third test gives a strong imperative to Park (and even Obama) to reach out to North Korea through back channels and come to agreement on future diplomacy, engagement and rapprochement. Keen to avoid being overly reliant on China, North Korea actually has a strong imperative to secure as much aid as possible from the U.S. and South Korea , and halting a test could be one way of achieving this.

Of course, it is entirely possible that North Korea will test – and soon. Indeed, with the country continuing to make slow adjustments to its third leader in over half a century, it remains distinctly possible that military hardliners are the ones in control and behind serious pressure on Kim Jong Un to conduct a third test. If so, watch out for Foreign Ministry warnings, for they may provide crucial information about the timing of any third nuclear test.

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll founded NK News in 2010. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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