Is North Korea Preparing for Another Nuclear Test?

Barring unforeseen technical difficulties, North Korea will attempt to launch what it describes as an “earth observation satellite” sometime between April 12 and April 16. Given the time difference between the Korean peninsula and the United States, the test could take place as early as Wednesday evening on the East Coast. Preparations for the launch have continued without interruption in recent weeks. Over the weekend of April 7-8, five dozen foreign correspondents observed and photographed the Unha-3 rocket on its launch pad near the Chinese border. Despite near-universal international opposition to a launch that would violate the letter and spirit of Security Council actions taken in 2006 and 2009, Pyongyang clearly intends to proceed with launch plans that it announced on March 16.

However, foreign reporters should not anticipate comparable invitations to a remote mountainous location in northeastern North Korea. Commercial overhead imagery from April 1 has confirmed tunneling activities actively underway near Pyunggye-ri, the site of North Korea’s two underground nuclear tests. According to the Yonhap news agency, an unidentified South Korean intelligence official has concluded that a new tunnel is in preparation for a third nuclear test at the same location.

The impending satellite launch bears immediate comparison to the events in 2006 and 2009, when Pyongyang undertook its first two nuclear tests. On both occasions, the nuclear tests were preceded by rocket launches, with the latter justified as a satellite launch. When the UN Security Council condemned the rocket launch in 2006, the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately declared that the UN action constituted an “extremely dangerous situation where our sovereignty and security have been gravely encroached.” Pyongyang warned that it would “strengthen its self-defensive deterrent by all means and measures;” its first nuclear test took place two and a half months later. In 2009, North Korea declared that a Security Council presidential statement “violently infringed on our republic’s sovereignty and gravely defiled our people’s dignity.” Pyongyang warned that it would “strengthen its self-defensive nuclear deterrent in every way;” the North’s second nuclear test occurred six weeks later.

Though the March 16 announcement was not nearly as harsh or threat laden as the statements issued in 2006 or 2009, the satellite test and subsequent external reactions have yet to play out. But there was a preprogrammed quality to the announcement that seems reminiscent of the prior events. The warnings of recent weeks have been less authoritative, but point in the same direction. North Korea has alluded to unspecified “countermeasures” it might undertake should outside powers impose additional costs for its impending launch. On April 4 a pro-DPRK newspaper in Japan warned that North Korea might undertake a third nuclear test if the U.S. and others deny it the right to engage in the peaceful uses of outer space or push for additional sanctions on the North.

If there is another nuclear test, determination of the fissile material utilized in the test will assume major importance. In 2009, Pyongyang announced that it would pursue an enriched uranium program whose existence it had long denied, purportedly to produce low enriched fuel for an experimental light water reactor under construction at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. Since Pyongyang disclosed existence of a modern centrifuge facility at Yongbyon in late 2010, suspicions have mounted that North Korea has one or more covert facilities where highly enriched uranium production is already underway.

If North Korea is able to produce highly enriched uranium for a weapon, it will be one more instance of openly deceiving the outside world, including China, its most important economic and political benefactor. Beijing continues to beseech Pyongyang not to proceed with its satellite launch, but it remains elliptical about its possible responses to the launch.

The Obama administration has repeatedly conveyed to senior Chinese policy makers that Beijing’s continued toleration of North Korean behavior will only exacerbate the dangers to international security. The United States seems almost certain to call for additional actions by Security Council following the satellite launch, but China has said nothing about its willingness to act in concert with the U.S. and others.

Beijing is also the only outside actor with a capacity to influence North Korean decision making. China will undoubtedly urge the DPRK to forgo another nuclear test, but it is far from certain whether Pyongyang will be any more prepared to accommodate to China than on previous occasions. The question then becomes whether Beijing is prepared to impose costs on the North if it perceives sufficient risks to its own interests. At a minimum, there may be renewed debate within the Chinese leadership on the liabilities of remaining tethered to their problematic neighbor. But it is too soon to tell whether the Chinese will seek to distance itself from Pyongyang.

A North Korean capacity to produce highly enriched uranium at undisclosed and unmonitored locations (thereby substituting for its very limited inventory of plutonium) could ultimately enable a more fully operational weapons program and a capacity to produce HEU for export. Even if these seem remote possibilities at present, it is not too soon to assess these possibilities, weigh their potential strategic implications, and consider how to limit the risks to regional security and to the non-proliferation regime as a whole.
 
For now, South Korea, the United States, and other affected powers must await North Korea’s next moves. Despite its isolation and continuing economic dysfunction, Pyongyang appears determined to act according to its own policy logic and self-defined interests, thus remaining mired in circumstances very much of its own making. North Korea may seem particularly vulnerable in the aftermath of the death of its long-time leader Kim Jong Il, but it would be a profound misjudgment to assume that it is unprepared to yet again act in defiance of the outside world, regardless of the potential consequences.