North Korea’s latest nuclear test, once again, seems to have surprised everyone.
Coming only nine months after its last nuclear detonation and following ever-advancing ballistic missile tests, including a successful submarine launch just two weeks ago, Kim Jong Un’s latest wake-up call to world leaders will be hard to ignore.
But why now? And, for a leadership recently experiencing a flurry of high-profile defections, what does the latest test mean for stability in Pyongyang?
And where does this test leave the United States and South Korea, two countries facing Presidential elections in November this year and December 2017 respectively? Finally, will the latest test prompt China to turn up the heat in terms of sanctions implementation? Or does the test show that Beijing has more or less given up?
To find out, NK News spoke to a range of experts in both South Korea and the U.S, including:
Bruce Bennett – Senior Defense Analyst, RAND
Bruce Klingner – Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation
Duyeon Kim – Visiting Senior Fellow, KPFF
Eom Sang-yoon – Senior Researcher, Sejong Institute
John Delury – Associate Professor of Chinese Studies, Yonsei University
Melissa Hanham – (META) Lab, Monterey Institute
Yang Moo-Jin – Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies
1. Why test now?
North Korea appears to have just performed its 5th nuclear weapon test. This date was apparently chosen to correspond with North Korea Foundation Day, a major national holiday.
But the North has also been hyping its missile and nuclear threats this year, starting with its 4th nuclear weapon test and a satellite launch/ICBM test in January and February. Since then, it has launched over 30 theater ballistic missiles of 200 km range or greater—more than the number of North theater ballistic missiles tests in previous history.
North Korea suffered international sanctions for its nuclear weapon and ICBM tests (UN Security Council Resolution 2270), sanctions which may hurt the North Korean economy. These missile tests and now the 5th nuclear test have all been major signs of North Korean defiance against that UN Security Council Resolution.
Korea watchers endlessly debate the timing and motivation of North Korean actions, perceiving a linkage to anniversaries, potential regime instability, or a supposed response to U.S./ROK actions. Such debate is the lifeblood of analysts but is unresolvable, sometimes used to excuse North Korea’s abhorrent behavior, and ultimately worthless.
Instead, the focus should be on the North Korean actions – which are provocation, violations of UN resolutions or laws, or deadly attacks – rather than the array of possible regime motivations. Perhaps the latest nuclear test was timed to celebrate North Korean Founding Day but more important than the timing is that the test is another blatant defiance of UN resolutions and the international community must respond.
This apparent nuclear test is a serious concern but certainly not surprising because we have been and should continue to expect North Korea to continue testing its nuclear devices and missiles. Pyongyang has every technological, political, strategic, and national reason to continue testing. Continued testing helps perfect its technology.
Today’s timing is also politically advantageous for the North because it coincides with the anniversary of the regime and a series of international summits in the region. I’d be curious to learn if this was one or two simultaneous tests. India tested two nuclear devices together before calling it quits, and I have wondered if or when North Korea would think about following suit.
It’s a national holiday (though it’s almost always a national holiday in North Korea).
Technically speaking, a newer pattern we’re seeing with both the missile and the nuclear side is an accelerated pace of testing.
So it would appear to be that there’s a real drive on the technical side to demonstrate to themselves and to the world that this is a full-on proper nuclear arsenal.
Since the North chose September 9 (its national foundation day), the test can be understood as an attempt to strengthen the solidarity of the regime.
However, the North did it for external purposes at a time when the South Korea – U.S. joint military drills and G20 summit in Hangzhou of China finished.
The North showed its strategic determination to the outside world that it will make sure of its position as nuclear weapons state.
They declared this year to be the one to demonstrate their capability, which for years, we have not been taking seriously. In the days leading up to today, they’ve been very frustrated in their state media. After the last round of sessions at the UN Security Council, there was an envoy sent to China where things may have gone badly and so I think it’s probably one part political and one part scientific.
They had a test in January that they declared a thermonuclear test, but most analysts felt the seismic yield was too low for it to really be thought of as a thermonuclear test. They may be following up again and I don’t know precisely what the yields of this device may be yet, but we have to wait until all the different seismic stations that are collecting data can agree on a seismic number and then we can make estimates, but it’s very hard to make an estimate.
This test is no surprise to me as the North has been reiterating to conduct its next test if their “peace offensive” does not work as intended.
2. What does this signify about regime stability?
The nuclear test is not reflective of regime stability or instability but rather the manifestation of Pyongyang’s decade-long quest to develop, augment, and refine its nuclear arsenal and the means to deliver them via missiles against the U.S. and its allies.
This year North Korea has engaged in a rapid-fire series of nuclear and missile tests. In addition to the two nuclear tests, Kim Jong Un has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, a road-mobile intermediate-range missile, a submarine-launched ballistic missile, upgraded medium- and short-range missiles, re-entry vehicle technology, a new solid-fuel rocket engine, and an improved liquid-fuel ICBM engine.
During Kim Jong Un’s four-year reign, Pyongyang has conducted 37 missile tests, more than twice as many as his father Kim Jong Il in 17 years in office.
With this apparent nuclear test, Pyongyang seems to be saying that international sanctions and condemnation will not stop it from achieving its nuclear-missile goals.
The North is likely telling its domestic and international audiences that the apparent test is more “evidence” of its claimed status as a stable, nuclear power.
Kim needs the tests to manage his internal instability, about which we have heard much in recent weeks especially relative to high-level defectors. In many ways, North Korea a very weak state. Kim uses a combination of brutality and diversion (e.g., missile and nuclear tests) to try to control both the masses and his elites. His missile launches and nuclear tests are attempts to divert attention from his other failures (economy, international politics, …), and also in an attempt to secure North Korean military support and to deter outside action against him.
Each provocation suggests that he is feeling more and more internal pressure which he must divert. Might he be preparing to carry out limited attacks against South Korea, as his father and he did in 2010?
Through the fifth nuclear test, Kim Jong Un attempts to internally highlight his leadership image.
He is showing that he can confront the U.S., and is showing his strategic will to cling to his way without submitting to the pressure and sanctions from internationally society.
This North Korean test is a cynical message to the Seoul government, which has been claiming that the North is undergoing an internal breakdown recently.
We do not have the confirmed data on its magnitude yet, but if the result is significantly better – for example, twice as stronger than before – then its message will carry far more weight.
The test can consolidate internal unity in a way. However, the impact on regime stability would have been greatest after their first test. This is the fifth test (so it will have small ripple effect), but Kim Jong Un doesn’t have any other option to consolidate his power.
In reality, the best way (to stabilize the regime) is by developing the economy and making people live well. However, Kim Jong Un has limited options, and can’t help but improve nuclear and missile capabilities. He boasts his leadership through military armaments.
It has nothing to do with regime stability and we need to stop asking that question. This place has been around for 70 years, it’s just a state just like the rest of us.
I don’t know if I would draw any particular conclusion about the regime stability. I wouldn’t go so far as to connect the dots there.
3. What does this mean for South Korea and the U.S.?
From a political context, the North Koreans do focus on the United States in terms of nuclear issues, and that is their primary interlocutor. They are certainly aware that there is an election coming up and they are aware that they have a lame duck president who is not going to do anything with them, so I think there’s a double-edged sword with the United States.
On the one hand, getting a fifth test over before the new President takes office (which appears to be an aim), while they are also putting a kind of exclamation point on the end of the eight years of the Obama policy of strategic patience policy, of mostly sanctions. This is the North Korean way of saying “See look, here’s what you’ve reaped.”
In a weird way, you could leave a little bit of room for a Trump or a Clinton to start off not with a nuclear test on day one, or rather that this fifth test is instead a memory of the many tests that they’ve done. They are very aware of American politics.
For South Korea, President Park completely reversed her policy towards North Korea. She abandoned the politics of talking to them even when there’s been no progress on the nuclear issue. What we’ve seen this year after the fourth test is South Korea reverting to a traditional, conservative approach and just really not talking to the North Koreans. And, this time Seuol is going global in an effort to apply more pressure and talk about unification on the premise that it will collapse. So what does the fifth test do? I think it just accelerates the line in Seoul even harder, but it already changed up after the fourth test, so I don’t think this was any type of game changer.
The United States has been pursuing a policy of “strategic patience” relative to the North Korean nuclear weapon threat, hoping that North Korea would eventually agree to give up its nuclear weapons. But Kim has amended the North Korean constitution to say that North Korea is a nuclear state, and the North regularly proclaims that it will never give up its nuclear weapons.
The United States now needs to take a more serious approach both to deterring North Korean use of nuclear weapons and to stopping the developments of the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Economic sanctions and hope will not solve the problem.
This is how Kim Jong Un “communicates” with the world. During the recent G20 held in China, the surrounding nations displayed concerns that they are against its nuclear development.
Through this test, Pyongyang has just sent the message that it will walk its paths, and neither China nor Russia can affect its decision-making process.
The apparent test is another reminder that we need to find an effective diplomatic solution to both the nuclear-missile problem and Pyongyang’s security concerns.
The Obama administration, with just months left, will only be able to manage the situation. So this falls on the next US president who should make the North Korea issue a top preoccupation.
It is a life-or-death situation for South Korea and a threat to the US and Japan.
I think there’s already a good level of cooperation between South Korea and the U.S., and I think that it’s going to cause them to want to cooperate further. Most of the discussion lately has been around THAAD and missile defenses, the rocket test they did just recently, the Scud-ER had their range for the first time, and open source in new ways. And so there’s probably a lot of U.S.-SK cooperation going on about what to do about that type of delivery device.
I can’t say what they have tested but if they are testing the silver orb we saw earlier, then that is very troubling. But of course we have no idea whether that’s what they’re really testing something or if they’re testing something much larger…in terms of physical size.
Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo will press for closing several loopholes to UNSCR 2270, most notably eliminating the “livelihood purposes” exemption on the ban of North Korean export of its resources. The Obama Administration has pulled its punches on implementing U.S. sanctions on North Korea until pressured by recent Congressional legislation (the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enforcement Act) which stipulated mandatory enforcement of U.S. law. The administration has still not imposed a single secondary sanction on Chinese entities facilitating prohibited North Korean actions.
Sanctions and targeted financial measures may take time to have an impact on the regime’s financial condition. But in the short-term, such measures enforce U.S. and international law, impose a penalty on violators, and constrain the inflow and export of prohibited items for the nuclear and missile programs. The difficulty will be maintaining international resolve to stay the course. Already, some have expressed impatience with the months-old sanctions and advocated a return to the decades-long attempts at diplomacy which failed to achieve denuclearization.
This means the North will continue on its way.
The South and the U.S. strengthened the sanctions and said many defectors have fled the North due to its bad economic situation; and the North’s regime has been shaken.
In response, the North said there was no problem with its system, and would get its own way.
The North sent a message that the policies of the South and the U.S. toward the North failed, and is urging them to change their policies.
4. Will this be enough to get China on on-board?
This explains why the North Korean diplomat Choe Son Hui recently visited China. I am convinced that she was there to announce their next test, and Beijing would have most likely stood against it as such act would only corner China.
Pyongyang’s message to Beijing is simple: “In the field of the nuclear development, I will walk my way. Don’t try to make your influence felt on us.”
China has recently been placing major pressure on South Korea to prevent the U.S. deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in Korea—a system designed for protection against the growing North Korean nuclear and missile threat. As part of that pressure, China has apparently not been rigorously imposing the sanctions from UN Security Council Resolution 2270 (reportedly, trade between China and North Korea actually grew 9% in 2016 versus 2015).
It is hard to tell whether China will decide to assume the role of a regional Great Power and seek to curtail the North’s provocative behavior—thus far, China has really not decided to do so. It is ironic that China opposes the U.S. THAAD missile defense system being deployed in South Korea, when China deploys a similar missile defense system referred as the HQ-19, which China appears to deploy against the North Korean NoDong and Musudan missiles—the same threats that worry South Korea.
No, absolutely not.
If the sea change that people are looking for from Beijing would have come with the fourth test. And there are those that said it’s coming, and now they have to admit that it didn’t come. So what’s going to happen with this fifth test? There’s going to be an immediate period after the test where China will participate – sort of try and stay in the mainstream along with others for whatever’s going to happen at the UN level. And there will be this and that, in terms of tightening of sanctions here and there.
But the Chinese are so clear that they don’t think sanctions will solve this problem. They can’t say it enough. And so they may be shy in saying it immediately after the test, because everyone’s outraged, but that’s their policy, that’s their language, and that will continue to be the case after this one.
UN Security Council members will convene an emergency meeting to respond to Pyongyang’s latest violation of UN resolutions. The council tends to reserve its harshest responses for nuclear tests. China remains the wild card in UN deliberations, however, typically demanding weaker responses and only lackadaisically enforcing required sanctions.
Beijing recently prevented any UN response to a North Korean missile test in retaliation for U.S. plans to deploy the THAAD ballistic missile defense to South Korea. But China subsequently agreed to a strongly-worded UN press statement to Pyongyang’s most recent missile test, negating the argument that Beijing would block all UN action over the THAAD deployment.
Well, I wouldn’t say they’re off-board. I think they went farther than they’ve ever gone for the last round of sanctions.
I think China has a very hard time enforcing those sanctions because it has a huge trade volume all over the world. We have watched the DPRK-Chinese traffic and we have seen that the traffic hasn’t necessarily flowed.
For me, watching the traffic across the China-North Korea border will be the best to answer this question.
The latest apparent nuclear test places a burden on China, but Beijing is unlikely to crack down on Pyongyang the way the international community desires because of its own strategic interests and because it believes in positive inducements like dialogue and a peace treaty to change North Korean behavior.
Beijing might consider rethinking its current position if Washington’s response creates a negative security environment for China.
China will join the movement of sanctions because the nuclear test is in violation of China’s three broad principles on the Korean peninsula and China is a leader in international society.
However, China will considerably fall into a dilemma because the movement can accelerate the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) on the Korean peninsula based on the trilateral alliance among the South, the U.S. and Japan.
China’s opposition to THAAD deployment doesn’t necessarily mean that it accepts the North’s missile and nuclear weapons.
China stands against THAAD deployment since it could damage its interests. But the issue of whether iit will actively engage in enforcing UN sanctions also hinge upon their interests. I believe China will express its opposition, and join the UN Security Council in more sanctions.
Main picture: NK News
Additional reporting: J.H. Ahn, Dagyum Ji, Christina Lee
North Korea's latest nuclear test, once again, seems to have surprised everyone.
Coming only nine months after its last nuclear detonation and following ever-advancing ballistic missile tests, including a successful submarine launch just two weeks ago, Kim Jong Un's latest wake-up call to world leaders will be hard to ignore.
Chad O'Carroll is the founder of NK News/NK Pro and related holding company Korea Risk Group. In addition to being the group's CEO, O'Carroll is a frequent writer and commentator about the Koreas, having written about the two nations since 2010. He has visited the DPRK multiple times, worked and lived in Washington, D.C. with a focus on peninsula issues, and lived in the ROK since 2016.