The script of North Korea’s latest threat to conduct another nuclear test is depressingly familiar. Pyongyang first tests a long-range ballistic missile, usually justified as a satellite launch. An international debate then ensues over the reasons for the test. Was it conducted for purely domestic considerations? Is it a way to secure food or economic assistance? Is it an attempt to convince the United States to enter into bilateral negotiations or is it yet another step in building a nuclear deterrent despite intense international opposition? The UN Security Council then responds with varying degrees of condemnation and punitive actions. North Korea takes umbrage, first threatening and then carrying out a nuclear test. The international community responds with even more severe warnings not to do it again. North Korea hunkers down, and finds ways to circumvent sanctions imposed by the Security Council. Whether China has done enough to restrain North Korea is then hotly discussed in the United States, South Korea, Japan, and even in China.
But the script doesn’t always work out this way. Last April there was a missile test and then no nuclear test, even though there were apparent preparations at the test site. Whether Pyongyang acts on its threat to test may be a function of how much China is willing to pay to break the cycle, or possibly Beijing’s warnings of severe negative consequences in its relations with Pyongyang. Our best educated guess is that there will be another nuclear test this time, but it is impossible to be precise about when. The warnings this time suggest it will not be a plutonium device, as in 2006 and 2009, but one that utilizes highly enriched uranium as the fissile material. Moreover, North Korea intimates that the explosive yield of this test could be much greater than that of either of Pyongyang’s previous tests.
The reasons for Pyongyang’s renewed brinksmanship are probably “all of the above.” Kim Jong Un, who brought the military down several pegs after succeeding his father, may need to provide some compensation in the form of additonal missile and nuclear testing. Pyongyang certainly would like to secure more aid from China in order to mitigate its dire economic circumstances. But Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo are wholly unwilling to negotiate on North Korean terms. North Korea, therefore, seeks security by ultimately acquiring the ability to strike the continental United States with nuclear weapons. It seems almost inconceivable that North Korea would undertake such an attack, which would be an act of national suicide. But Pyongyang believes that the United States would be less likely to ever contemplate an attack on the North once it possesses credible nuclear capabilities.
An additional factor concerns the inauguration of South Korea’s new president, Madame Park Geun-hye. Madame Park will be sworn into office on February 25. She has proposed a North Korea policy that maintains deterrence, but seeks to probe North Korean intentions in a “trust-building” process. If North Korea tests a nuclear device either before Park’s inauguration or in the months that follow, it seems highly unlikely that she would be able to proceed with the engagement part of her strategy. Madame Park has already made clear that she regards nuclear weaapons in the North as wholly unacceptable. Pyongyang may nonetheless see value in testing South Korea’s new president at the ouset of her tenure in office. By all accounts, Mme. Park means what she says, thus ensuring that the grim North Korean nuclear saga will persist, leaving security on the peninsula and the region even more endangered.
At the time [in the mid-1970s], [North Korea] wasn't doing so badly. After the Korean War, their economy was rebuilt, it became a functioning industrial state, still very aid-dependent — but it wouldn't have seemed like such a bad bet, under the circumstances.