Over what, for Americans, was a long holiday weekend, North Korea tested another nuclear device and followed that up by firing two more short-range ballistic missiles, moves sure to heighten fear among its neighbors and further isolate the regime.   The question most observers are asking is Why now?


Why North Korea Tested Nukes Now

For good reason, applying the descriptor “inscrutable” to analysis of Asian politics has long since fallen out of fashion.  It’s a shame, really, that the word was abused in the past because it’s perfectly apt when trying to explain the seemingly bizarre actions of the North Korean regime.

The state run news agency proclaimed that “Our army and people are fully ready for battle . . . against any reckless U.S. attempt for a pre-emptive attack,” Blaine Harden reports for WaPo.  But that really doesn’t make much sense:  “Although Monday’s detonation did not appear to be a significant technical advance over Pyongyang’s first underground test three years ago, it has triggered a faster and more negative response from other countries, including China and Russia, North Korea’s historical allies. The missile firings are adding to the tension.”

Peter Howard, an international security scholar at American University, noted upon first hearing the news that “this move seems puzzling, out of context, which is to say that it doesn’t fit North Korea’s existing pattern of telegraphing its moves and using its nuclear program to extract maximum bargaining concessions from the United States. An initial and early read might be that this test does quite the opposite, confronting a new US administration broadly committed to diplomacy and alienating other could-be allies (Russia, China).”

NYT correspondent Martin Fackler writes that “the initial view across the region was that this had been yet another defiant gambit by the North to extract more concessions from Washington” but that that “North Korea’s succession crisis is the primary impetus, many experts believe, suggesting that the audience for the test is its own population as much as the United States.”  With Kim Jong-Il in poor health, Fackler argues, “the North Korean government most likely hopes the test will help ensure a smooth transition of power — and, perhaps, show that the elder Kim is still in charge, at least for now.”

Foreign affairs blogger Dave Schuler thinks it all of the above and then some: “North Korea’s nuclear test was conducted to move their nuclear weapons development program along and for domestic political reasons and raise the stakes in negotiations with the United States and to stir the pot, not just in South Korea but generally.”  He adds, “That certainly seems to have worked.”

Whatever the motivations, the tests have implications for international security policy.  What does this change?  What will the international community do about it?  The answer to both questions is likely the same: Not much.

What the Tests Mean

President Obama proclaimed,  “By acting in blatant defiance of the United Nations Security Council, North Korea is directly and recklessly challenging the international community.”

In addition to undermining a new American president who was striving for a fresh start, Steve Benen, who heads the American Strategy Program and the New America Foundation, notes that the tests are particularly “embarrassing for the leadership in Beijing,” whose powerlessness over the DPRK has just been made manifest.

Cheryl Rofer, a chemist who specializes in nuclear issues, makes a point often missed in these discussions:  Each DPRK nuclear test exhausts a significant chunk of its total sore of plutonium.  She cites Siegfried Hecker, a former director of Los Alamos now at Stanford, who wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists earlier this month based on his own first-hand access to North Korea’s facilities.

I previously estimated that North Korea had produced between 40 and 50 kilograms of separated plutonium by the time it began to disable its nuclear facilities as part of the Six-Party Talks. North Korea declared that it had separated and weaponized only 26 kilograms. Assuming that 6 kilograms of plutonium would be needed for each nuclear weapon, North Korea has sufficient material for at most eight nuclear weapons and perhaps as few as four.

So, while the latest test is a provocation, it actually resulted in a diminution of the DPRK’s already tiny arsenal.

Still, it’s clear that Kim has managed to alienate himself from his few remaining allies, right?  Possibly.  But it likely doesn’t matter.

International Options for Responding

As if on script, the UN Security Council issued yet another round of condemnations yesterday and is considering yet more sanctions.  But, as Rofer observes, these are likely to be no more effective than in the past:

North Korea, partly on its own and partly because of the actions of other countries, is isolated in a way that no other country is. It can be reasonably sure there will be no military retaliation because of Seoul’s proximity and China’s fear of a flood of refugees. So it is free to do as it pleases. And, whatever its objectives may be, it can freely pursue them. This is where strategies of isolating and sanctioning countries leads. The rest of the world has little leverage.

Quite right.  For good measure, as CSM staff writer Peter Grier points out, “The situation is made more difficult because two US journalists seized March 17 by the North Koreans along the border with China are due to stand trial on illegal entry and other charges in early June.”

Further, as Tufts political scientist Daniel Drezner observes, “The leadership in Pyongyang is perfectly willing to starve its own population rather than concede a smidgen of autonomy.”

Drezner adds that “There is no viable military option unless everyone is comfortable with the destruction of Seoul; there is no viable sanctions option unless China decides to cut off the energy tap, and they’ll only do this if they’re sure it won’t lead to a stream of North Korea refugees entering Manchuria.”  He suggests that the Obama administration should do what it can to “get China to join the Proliferation Security Initiative” and thereby “signal to Pyongyang that, yes, there actually are some serious costs to thumbing one’s nose at the U.N. Security Council.”

My strong guess (and I suspect Drezner’s) is that this won’t happen and that this will blow over much as the previous tests have.   Kim has once again forced the world to pay attention to his pathetic excuse for a regime but in a way that has gained very little for his citizens.   Meanwhile, the world’s other governments will decide that doing nothing meaningful is the best of a lot of bad options.   

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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