The Implications of North Korea’s Third Nuclear Test

We do not yet know how much North Korea has advanced its nuclear weapons program as a result of today’s test. Specialists are intensely curious about the fissile material used (plutonium or enriched uranium) and the design of device.  Pyongyang claims that the latest test was of a smaller, lighter weapon, and the available seismic data indicates an appreciably greater explosive yield than either of the prior tests.   The North is undoubtedly making progress, and it is not too early to assess the implications of this test – and the successful ballistic missile launch in December – for the interests of all countries immediately affected by the detonation.

Kim Jong Un very likely sees himself as the big winner from today’s test.  Kim became North Korea’s top leader following the death of his father Kim Jong Il fourteen months ago. His principal goal since then has been to establish his own personal legitimacy and preserve that of the Kim Royal Family. In that regard, securing progress on the missile and nuclear programs is the coin of the realm.

For the United States and Japan, the two tests confirm past judgments about Pyongyang’s long-term intentions. That is, the DPRK is intent on acquiring the ability to strike the continental United States as well as Japan with nuclear weapons, an objective that no package of outside incentives is likely to prevent. The stakes are high. Should North Korea succeed in its quest, it will significantly destabilize the security of Northeast Asia and increase the dangers of proliferation to other regions.

Some will fault Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul for not having engaged Pyongyang to head off the tests of recent months, but there is little or no evidence that Kim Jong Un would have been any more responsive to engagement than his father. Instead, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea have sought in recent years to “sharpen North Korea’s choices,” between sustaining its nuclear and missile programs, in contrast to heightened economic and political benefits with the international community.  All three states will likely respond to today’s test by seeking to tighten sanctions. There is ample room to improve the implementation of existing measures, and new financial sanctions are available (see the current Iran menu). But a question lingers, are we indeed shaping North Korea’s choices or is it shaping ours?

The third nuclear test puts China’s new leadership on the hot seat. Under its previous leader Hu Jintao Beijing had multiple objectives in its North Korea strategy: restrain DPRK provocations; limit the impact of multilateral sanctions so that they do not stabilize the North Korean regime; provide economic support to Pyongyang to enhance stability and encourage better behavior; and facilitate a diplomatic approach for managing the problem, if not solving it. By testing in defiance of China’s wishes, Pyongyang has once again demonstrated that it has a very different agenda.  It is betting that Beijing’s threats of punishment (as under Hu Jintao) are all bark and no bite. In effect, it is testing China’s new paramount leader, Xi Jinping. Will he cooperate with Washington in tightening sanctions and withdraw material and political benefits to Kim Jong Un? Or will Xi accommodate to a new status quo? Those questions will occupy the Beijing leadership during the Chinese New Year holiday.

The DPRK’s action probably has the greatest impact on South Korea’s president-elect, Park Geun-hye, who will be inaugurated on February 25th. Madame Park had campaigned on the premise that the North Korea policies of the current president, Lee Myung Bak, had been too tough and one-sided. She had proposed the creation of a “trust-building” process with Pyongyang and a focus on areas of potential mutual benefit. Much of the South Korean public supported that stance when they cast their votes. With today’s nuclear test, Kim Jong Un has signaled that any acts of accommodation must come solely from the South Korean side, thus putting Madame Park on the defensive. Her initiative is now very unlikely to get off the ground.  Any claims that the test was directed against outgoing President Lee will ring hollow to the new president, compelling her to rethink her approach to future dealings with the North.