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Second Nuclear Test: North Korea Does What It Says

North Korea did exactly what it said it would do on May 25, 2009, when it conducted a nuclear test as promised in its April 28, 2009, statement in response to UN sanctions imposed on three North Korean firms in accordance with an April 13, 2009, UN Security Council Presidential Statement condemning North Korea's April 5, 2009, missile test. The test furthers North Korea's strategic objective of making permanent its status as a nuclear weapons state. North Korea's announcement of the test shows that a primary political target of North Korea's nuclear test is domestic, as was the case with North Korea's April 5th missile launch.

North Korea's May 25, 2009, statement announcing the test ties the rationale for the test directly to the leadership succession issue, underscoring an apparent fear that external actors will take advantage of unfolding succession arrangements to intervene or destabilize North Korea. The announcement emphasizes the need to "bolster up its nuclear deterrent for self-defence in every way," ties the test to a 150-day internal political and propaganda campaign designed to lay the framework for succession arrangements, and asserts that "the test will contribute to defending the sovereignty of the country and the nation and socialism and ensuring peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and the region around it with the might of (the military first policy) songun."

A May 23, 2009, article prior to the test in Chosun Sinbo, a Japan-based newspaper that North Korea often uses as an unofficial mouthpiece, states that "if the situation has reached a stage where the spokesperson for the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs has to state that the desire for denuclearization has evaporated for good, adopting a method of a bold approach is inevitable." The article then calls for the United States to make a "switchover in its policy" as a prerequisite for renewed dialogue. Although North Korea has reason based on past experience to expect that this pattern of provocation and dialogue is an effective way of taming the United States, the North's expectation that the Obama administration would normalize relations with North Korea absent denuclearization is a serious miscalculation. Sig Hecker provided a prescient technical analysis which also anticipated the likelihood of a second North Korean nuclear test in the May 12, 2009, issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The Obama Administration's Challenge in Responding to the Test

North Korea's aggressive behavior of recent months seems to be driven more by internal than external policy considerations, underscoring the following challenges for the Obama administration as the situation unfolds following the test:

  • How to ensure that North Korea faces "consequences" for conducting a second nuclear test without further enflaming a situation in which North Korea's aggressive actions appear to be increasingly motivated by the leadership's own sense of vulnerability.
  • How to effectively communicate U.S. policy to a preoccupied North Korean leadership, especially given the apparent need of the leadership to magnify hostility by outside countries as a tool for enhancing internal political controls. An immediate challenge is how to secure the release of two American journalists who are being detained in Pyongyang without rewarding North Korea in the aftermath of the nuclear test.
  • How to break the tried and true pattern in which North Korea utilizes crisis escalation to take the initiative followed by relaxation of tensions and return to dialogue on its own terms as a winning strategy with the United States and the international community.
  • How to minimize damage to and uphold the credibility of the international non-proliferation norm in light of the damage to the international non-proliferation regime done by North Korea's nuclear test.
  • How to show that the United States remains committed to North Korea's denuclearization AND stands against possible North Korean proliferation of nuclear materials.
  • How to mobilize North Korea's neighbors, and especially China, to utilize its leverage in concert with the United States and the other parties on the basis of the idea that regional stability versus denuclearization is a false choice, and that a nuclear North Korea is inherently destabilizing.

North Korea's Test and China's Strategic Dilemma

In light of the prior precedent set by UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which condemned North Korea's first nuclear test and imposed but never implemented sanctions on North Korean military-related trade and luxury goods, the Security Council should be able to achieve consensus on a new resolution. Last month's UN Security Council Presidential Statement was accompanied by sanctions on three North Korean missile-related companies. The main tests for the Security Council, and China in particular, will be how to expand the scope of sanctions that the Security Council will be willing to authorize and whether/how to endorse any accompanying diplomatic measures by which to address to address the issue with North Korea.

My book China's Rise and the Two Koreas shows how China's policies toward North Korea have increasingly come into conflict with its own broader interests in regional and global stability: North Korea's latest test directly defies Chinese interests by enhancing Japan's security anxieties and giving momentum to countermeasures (i.e., debates in Japan over acquisition of preemption and even nuclear capabilities) that are ultimately contrary to Chinese interests. North Korea's actions force China to choose between short-term support for a North Korea that continues to risk Chinese interests by promoting regional tensions and enhancing instability and China's long-term needs to uphold international non-proliferation norms and remove the sources of instability on the Korean peninsula.

The opinions expressed in this article and the SitRep website are the author's own and do not reflect the view of

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