North Korea has again shown with its recent nuclear test that it marches to its own drum – and a decidedly militaristic drumbeat it is. The sole country to have pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and indeed, probably the only one to have signed the treaty with the clear intention of violating it, North Korea has been alone in the past 15 years in defying the international norm against nuclear testing.
Defiance might be called the national trait, and North Koreans may be proud to be described that way. In conducting its third nuclear test, Pyongyang not only defied warnings from Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, but also the cautions of its friends in Beijingand Moscow. In recent weeks, selective Chinese state media had been unusually blunt in threatening consequences if North Korea went ahead with its planned test. Now it is likely that China will allow additional Security Council sanctions. It may even apply selective sanctions of its own, as it reportedly did in 2003 in disrupting the flow of oil during the first North Korean nuclear crisis.
The test shows yet again North Korea’s priority for guns over butter, and that its policy of Songun (Military First) is much more than a mere slogan. In addition to risking a cut-off of Chinese aid and oil, Pyongyang has also made it difficult for South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye to follow through on her election promise to resume humanitarian aid to the North.
Likewise, the team that President Barack Obama is assembling for his second term will be disinclined to pursue new engagement policies with North Korea. Instead, new sanctions will be applied, especially to try to prevent North Korea from helping nuclear weapon aspirations elsewhere.
If, as South Korea predicted, the nuclear test was based on highly enriched uranium (HEU), rather than plutonium, there will be heightened concern about transfers, since HEU can be more readily fashioned into crude nuclear weapons by terrorists and other non-state groups. But we will not know whether the device was made from HEU unless xenon gases are detected. (This is no certainty, since no such noble gases were detected after the 2009 test.)
North Korea’s claim that the test was of a miniaturized atomic bomb is consistent with the relatively small yield of 6-7 kilotonnes, even if the size of the bomb cannot be confirmed from afar. In any case, there is reason to take North Korea’s word that this was a small weapon. The military would have wanted to test such a weapon to be more certain that it had a workable warhead to fit the 1.25m diameter nosecone of its Nodong missiles.
North Korea has been working on warhead designs for about 25 years and some experts believe it likely that by now it has a workable device. However, North Korean generals would have wanted to be sure, and the political leadership would want the world to believe that their country has such a weapon. After all, the purpose of the weapons is the defence of the regime, and deterrence depends on adversaries believing that North Korea has both the will and the capability to employ nuclear force.
North Korea’s exact nuclear capability may remain in some doubt until investigations are made into this week’s third test. But, despite hints of reform from North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un to improve living standards, Pyongyang has clearly not yet changed its military tune.
Author: Mark Fitzpatrick is Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme of the Institute for International Security Studies, and a Member of the Global Agenda Council on Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons
Image: North Koreans applauding after the successful launch of the Unha-3 rocket REUTERS/Kyodo