In close coordination with South Korea, the Obama Administration has maintained a policy toward North Korea known as “strategic patience.” By maintaining pressure on Pyongyang through arms interdictions and international sanctions, Washington hopes to pressure North Korea back to the negotiating table, the end game being the complete denuclearization of North Korea in return for a normalization of relations and significant aid.
Under the dynastic “Great Successor” Kim Jong-un, however, the policymaking in Pyongyang has become increasingly unpredictable, perhaps even more so than it was under Kim Jong-il. The two most recent weapons tests – the December 2012 ballistic missile launch and the Feb. 12 nuclear test at the Punggye-ri test site – highlights this unpredictability, reflects the daunting challenges U.S. policymakers face, and raises significant questions about how the United States should approach the North Korean government going forward.
During the post-Cold War period, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the official name for North Korea) has been a persistent problem in U.S. foreign policy. Although the United States has never had formal diplomatic relations with North Korea, negotiations over its nuclear program have consumed the past three U.S. administrations. During that time, North Korea has alternated between a series of overtures and provocations. And while Pyongyang’s willingness to negotiate often appears driven by internal conditions (such as economic desperation or food shortages), its provocative behavior has been erratic and often driven by political demands (to increase domestic support for the regime and to draw global attention). As a result, North Korea has been the recipient of over $1 billion in U.S. aid and dozens of crippling U.S. (and international) sanctions.
Following the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011, his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, steadily consolidated power as “Supreme Leader.” Kim Jong-un was largely unknown before formal evidence of his selection emerged in 2010, and some observers held out hope that the young, European-educated Kim could emerge as a reformer. “The bottom line is we still don’t know whether or not he will simply follow in the steps of his father or whether he represents a different kind of leadership for the future,” said former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in October 2012.
There were early indications that Kim Jong-un would rule North Korea differently. Although Kim hewed closely to many of the policies established before his appointment, stylistic changes sought to portray him as a “man of the people,” conjuring associations with the revered Kim Il-sung. In marked contrast to the era of Kim Jong-il, the young, modern Kim permitted Western influences like Disney characters and clothing styles to infiltrate the public sphere, embraced citizens during public appearances, and even introduced “his wife, Comrade Ri Sol Ju” to the world. Kim emphasized improving the quality of life for North Korean citizens, and there were early signs that his government would reach out to the international community, potentially easing the tension on the Korean peninsula and opening the door to the resumption of the Six-Party Talks (made up of China, Japan, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States), which had been suspended since 2009.
Speculation that a “kindler, gentler North Korea” would emerge swirled, particularly after the North assented to a bilateral agreement with the United States on February 29, 2012 (the s0-called “Leap Day Agreement”). Under the Leap Day Agreement, in exchange for nutritional assistance from the U.S. (over 60% of the North Korean population suffers from chronic food insecurity), North Korea agreed to permit IAEA inspectors to return to the Yongbyon nuclear facilities, and committed itself to moratoriums on nuclear testing, long-range missile testing and enrichment activities at Yongbyon (the country’s indigenous source of plutonium).
The strength of the U.S.-North Korea agreement, however, was tenuous from the beginning. Following the announcement in February 2012, the United States issued a statement emphasizing several wider security issues (e.g., its continued commitment to the 1953 armistice agreement) and the need to hold further talks to finalize details on the targeted U.S. program of nutritional assistance. North Korea issued a similar statement, but conditioned future cooperation on the resolution of a significant disagreement between the parties – namely, the statement also included a reference to a “discussion of issues concerning the lifting of sanctions on the DPRK and provision of light water reactors” as priorities once the Six-Party Talks have resumed. North Korea wants the sanctions lifted once the Six-Party Talks resume; the United States, on the other hand, has pledged to gradually relax the sanctions only after Pyongyang provides confidence-building measures and takes affirmative steps toward denuclearization.
Confidence that further progress would be made quickly eroded after the North’s failed attempt to launch a long-range ballistic missile on April 13, 2012. The launch of the missile, which North Korea described as an “Earth observation satellite,” coincided with the massive celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung. Even though the missile failed to reach orbit, exploding over the Yellow Sea about 90 seconds after take-off, the launch succeeded in ending the possibility of further international diplomacy. The prospects of diplomacy dimmed further when North Korea followed the failed April 2012 launch with another launch of a ballistic missile on December 12, 2012. This time the North succeeded in putting an “Earth observation satellite” into orbit. Although the probe will likely orbit for at least seven years, the scientific community believes that it is neither following the intended orbit nor is it transmitting information back to Earth.
The December 2012 launch of a Taepodong-2 missile (called the Unha-3 rocket by North Korea) may have been the greatest success North Korea has yet had in its effort to develop long range ballistic missiles. Indeed, the launch was the country’s only success of long-range technology from five launches spanning nearly 15 years. But that is not necessarily why it is significant to the international community (concerns about North Korea’s ballistic missile program are greatly exaggerated). Rather, the launch is of greater significance because it marks a sharp break with past precedent. The timing of the launch caught most countries by surprise due to the perceived risk of failure (North Korea had disassembled parts of the rocket for repairs just two days before launch), the close temporal proximity to the most recent failed test (just eight months prior), and the fact that North Korea has historically conducted missile tests only in the spring or fall.
The launch earned North Korea harsh condemnation from the international community, including a rare pointed statement of regret from an official Chinese spokesperson. And it gave credence to suspicions that Kim Jong-un, beholden to established interests in the elite, would continue North Korea’s policy of international defiance. Analysts widely interpreted the December 2012 launch as a means to bolster Kim’s authority and prestige, in line with his early personnel decisions, including his decision to strip four of the highest-ranking generals in the Korean People’s Army of their ranks, in order to portray a policy to concentrate power in his hands and elevate the internal security apparatus. While Kim Jong-un may have appeared “young” and “modern” at the outset, and while he has made a concerted effort to rebuild many of North Korea’s political institutions so that they can gain stature over the military establishment, it is clear that the Songun, or “Military First,” policy has remained in place.
The most recent nuclear test on February 12, 2013 should put any further doubt to rest. Analysts will be looking at two things regarding North Korea’s latest nuclear test: (1) the size of the explosion (its yield); and (2) the fissile material – highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium-239 – from which the device was made.
Concerning the size of the explosion, available seismic data indicates a greater explosive yield than either of the two prior tests. The United States Geological Survey initially reported the magnitude of the seismic motion as 4.9, but this was subsequently revised to 5.1. It is difficult to accurately estimate the explosion’s yield, however, because the depth of the test is not known and the geology of the test site is uncertain. Nevertheless, given the available information, it is likely (but not certain) that the most recent test was the largest of the three. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence estimated that the yield was “several kilotons” and South Korea (Republic of Korea) placed it at 6 to 7 kilotons (i.e., the amount of trinitrotoluene, or “TNT,” required to make an equivalently large conventional explosion). By way of comparison, most studies suggest that the Oct. 9 2006 test, which created an earthquake of magnitude 4.3, had a yield of roughly 0.9 kilotons. There is more uncertainty as to the May 25 2009 test, which created an earthquake of magnitude 4.7, but experts have estimated the yield to range from about 2 kilotons to 7 kilotons.
(Some experts – a small minority – have suggested that the lower-yield of the two previous nuclear tests was intentional. Indeed, prior to the 2006 test, Pyongyang reportedly told Beijing that it was aiming for a yield of 4 kilotons. For purposes of comparison, consider the fact that the United States’ first nuclear test on July 16, 1945 (the “Trinity” test) had a yield of about 21 kilotons. Because smaller nuclear devices are more difficult to manufacture, if this speculation is accurate, North Korea’s nuclear program may be more advanced than widely believed.)
Of greater significance to the international community is whether North Korea used plutonium-239 (Pu-239) or highly enriched uranium (HEU) as the fissile material. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been plutonium-based from the beginning, which the country has historically produced at the 50MWe reactor at Yongbyon or at the 200MWe Taechon reactor. North Korea possesses everything needed to produce Pu-239 – a fuel fabrication plant, a nuclear reactor and a reprocessing plant. In 2007, however, North Korea agreed to shut down the 5MWe reactor at Yongbyon as part of the Six Party Talks, and in 2008 the cooling tower was destroyed and has not since been restarted. While it is possible that North Korea could restart plutonium production, given the dilapidated state of its plutonium-production infrastructure, any attempt at producing more would be highly visible. According to the Congressional Research Service, North Korea has an estimated 30 to 50 kilograms of Pu-239 stockpiled, enough for at least six nuclear weapons.
North Korea also possesses industrial-scale uranium mining and plants for milling, refining, and converting uranium. And in the past decade, intelligence began emerging that Pyongyang was pursing a second route to a nuclear bomb using HEU. Until 2009, North Korea denied the existence of a HEU program for nuclear weapons. But in November 2010 North Korea revealed the existence of a uranium-enrichment effort. Although the North Koreans claimed that the new program was for peaceful purposes only – that is, they planned to produce low-enriched, not high-enriched, uranium – many experts believed the program was capable of producing HEU in significant quantities. “The North’s disclosure supports the United States’ longstanding assessment that North Korea has pursued a uranium-enrichment capability,” James Clapper, U.S. Director of National Intelligence, told Congress a year ago.
The November 2010 announcement led analysts to speculate that North Korea would test a HEU device in a few years. The most recent test on February 12, 2013 may be that test. Following the blast, the North Korean regime released a statement claiming that the nation had now achieved a “diversified” nuclear capability, drawing attention as a possible indication that HEU was used.
As of this writing, the United States, South Korea and Japan are coordinating their efforts to determine what type of nuclear device was detonated, utilizing air-sampling equipment to check for residual radioactive emissions. A similar inquiry succeeded following the Oct. 2006 nuclear test, indicating that that device drew on the country’s limited reserves of plutonium, but failed following the May 2009 nuclear test because the blast did not vent radioactive material. There is thus no guarantee that the radioactive emissions from this new test will be detected, meaning that it might be impossible to identify the material from which the device was made. Or, for that matter, to verify the claims made by Pyongyang.
If HEU was used, that development would mark a significant milestone for North Korea’s nuclear program. The ability to produce HEU would ensure that North Korea has an alternative source of fissile material, allowing it to produce nuclear weapons without further depleting its limited stock of plutonium. In addition, it is easier to build a bomb using HEU than it is to build a bomb using plutonium. Of greater concern, however, is the fact that HEU, being much harder to detect, is easier to market than plutonium.
“This is about proliferation, and its also abut Iran because they’re linked,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at a press conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. Considering the fact that North Korea is commonly regarded as one of the most active proliferators of missiles and related technology, this concern is understandable.
North Korea is known as “Missiles ‘R’ Us” in intelligence circles, having exported an estimated number of 510 ballistic missiles to a variety of countries up until 2009. To take just a few examples: in 1987 and 1989, North Korea transferred between 100 and 400 Scud B missiles to Iran; in 1989, North Korea transferred between 25 and 40 Scud B missiles to the United Arab Emirates; in 1999, missile components were discovered aboard the North Korean freighter Kuwolsan en route to Libya; and in 2002, another freighter, the Sosan, transported complete Scud missiles to Yemen. North Korea has also exported ballistic missiles to Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Congo, and Burma. In addition, North Korea is known to have provided numerous countries with technical assistance for ballistic missile production. Specifically, North Korea and Iran have cooperated on the technical aspects of missile development since the 1980s. And according to reports, Iranian scientists were seen in North Korea leading up to the December 2012 ballistic missile launch, fueling speculation that they were a factor in the test’s success.
Even before North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, 83% of Americans considered the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea a “critical threat” to U.S. national security, according to a recent Gallup poll. Following the latest nuclear test, Kerry said that North Korea’s nuclear test poses a threat to global peace and demanded a unified response. “The international community needs to come together for a swift, clear response,” Kerry said in Washington at a press conference. However, changes in leadership and territorial disputes make such a response more difficult.
By the end of February, China, Japan and South Korea will have all undergone a transition in leadership. In China, Xi Jinping took over as Communist Party chief in November. In Japan, Shinzo Abe recently became the new prime minister. And in South Korea, president-elect Park Geun-hye will take office on February 25. Moreover, territorial disputes threaten to poison the relationships among the North-East Asian neighbors. Japan and China are in the midst of a dispute over islands in the East China Sea. Japan and South Korea are also troubled by disputed rocks. And China and South Korea have historically had an uneasy relationship.
Whether China, Japan and South Korea will resolve their differences and send Pyongyang a clear message that continued defiance and saber rattling is unacceptable is an open question. There is no doubt, however, that the latest nuclear test presents a particular challenge for new Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his lieutenants. China provides North Korea considerable assistance and is their largest trading partner (57% of all trade in 2011). Indeed, this past September, the two countries announced their intention to create or revamp several Special Economic Zones to facilitate further economic cooperation. But while the Chinese government’s overriding objective remains preventing North Korea’s collapse (China appears to have calculated that its strategic interests depend on Pyongyang’s survival), it faces significant pressure to respond forcefully to the North’s recent provocations.
China condemned the North’s Dec. 12 rocket launch and urged it not to proceed with further launches or nuclear tests. That North Korea proceeded anyway has infuriated China, and the timing of the test, which coincided with China’s lunar-new-year festivities, was particularly embarrassing for Beijing. China swiftly condemned North Korea, backed the UN rebuke, and summoned Pyongyang’s ambassador in Beijing to voice its displeasure. We should not expect the Chinese government to cut off border trade, energy supplies, or the regime’s access to cash. But the recent series of tests has boxed China into a corner. To maintain international credibility, China will have to support further Security Council deliberations, meaning that new sanctions will affect North Korea more acutely. In addition, it is likely that Beijing will make a concerted effort to push Pyongyang back to the negotiating table (as host of the Six-Party Talks, China plays a crucial role in the negotiations).
The negotiating table, ironically, is precisely where North Korea wants to be. It is unclear whether North Korea has advanced its nuclear weapons program as a result of the latest nuclear test. But this test, in conjunction with the December 2012 ballistic missile test, should confirm past judgments about Pyongyang’s long-term intentions. Other than through nuclear tests, ballistic missile launches and attacks on South Korea, North Korea struggles to win attention on the international stage. Indeed, the pattern of testing strongly suggests a political intent. This is not to downplay the threat posed by North Korea, and the international community should increase nonproliferation efforts, but Pyongyang’s provocations must always be put into perspective. Unless the Kim Royal Family feared military defeat and risked an irretrievable loss of control, North Korea probably would not attempt to use nuclear weapons (attacks with chemical agents are more probable). Rather, Pyongyang has resolved to develop sophisticated nuclear technology for deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy. And hewing closely to the policies set by his father, it appears that Kim Jong-un is determined to continue this policy into the foreseeable future.