Reports emerged last night that North Korea had detonated a nuclear device, its third test since 2006 and the first under the regime of Kim Jong-un. Preliminary data from South Korea suggested a yield of around 6-7 KT, although authorities have disagreed about the proper metrics for evaluating North Korean weapons.
What does this detonation mean for the United States, South Korea, and Japan?
The first and most important lesson is that North Korean policy towards its neighbors does not appear to have appreciably changed in Kim Jong Il’s wake. North Korea continues to test ballistic missiles, it continues to test nuclear devices, and it continues to decay socially, economically, and in terms of the conventional military balance. North Korea is stuck on the wrong side of history, and the detonation of 1950s era nuclear devices does nothing to solve that problem.
While the professional threat inflation complex will no doubt get in gear shortly, recent scholarship suggests caution in coming to the conclusion that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities pose a relevant threat.
Matthew Kroenig has argued that in crises, the state with nuclear advantage tends to express a greater willingness to accept risks. Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrman, on the other hand, argue that nuclear weapons provide virtually no advantages to states involved in disputes; nuclear weapons are too unwieldy and clumsy to act as useful tools of “compellence.” As amply demonstrated in many cases, nuclear weapons do not ensure military victory. Indeed, as made clear in the Yom Kippur War and the Falklands War, nukes cannot even guarantee deterrence against non-nuclear states.
While these arguments contradict each other to some extent, they do not offer fundamentally different analyses of the Northeast Asian situation. North Korea is at dire nuclear and conventional disadvantage relative to the United States and its allies; North Korea will remain at dire disadvantage effectively forever. Consequently, a new nuclear test does little-to-nothing to alter the real balance of power on the Korean Peninsula. It’s worth noting that the more-or-less successful tests of 2006 and 2009 have, thus far, allowed North Korea to accomplish none of its important foreign policy and security goals, apart from deterring a South Korean-U.S.-Japanese attack that likely would never have happened in the first place.
Last night, North Korea expended a significant fraction of its fissile material to achieve nearly nothing, beyond possibly the irritation of Beijing and the strengthening of right-wingers in Japan and the United States. The appropriate policy response to North Korea remains the same; containment until the regime collapses. Whether that requires five years, twenty-five years, or fifty years, the U.S. and its Northeast Asia allies have time on their side.