North Korea's Nuclear Test
Image Credit: Flickr (stephan)

North Korea's Nuclear Test


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.

February 14, 2013 at 23:22

How? I credited Slavoj Zizek with that "boring idiots" statement. Am I forced to point out that you're so stupid the only criticism of my writing you can muster is an utterly false accusation of plagiarism? Or can we have some intelligent dialogue here aimed at sharing thoughts and ideas? Isn't that what living in the"free world" supposedly means, as opposed to the DPRK? Or have sides grown so polarized we have to retreat to polemics, shoddy opinion making, and petty insults?


What the?
February 14, 2013 at 07:59

You’re so stupid that you have to plagiarize other writer’s work.

Kim's Uncle
February 14, 2013 at 06:57

Kim Regime gone wild? Amazing that this regime still exist and the Chinese commies still prop up this regime to further its own malevolent self-interest! What a shame!

February 13, 2013 at 22:22


February 13, 2013 at 22:21

Bankotsu. Get a clue.

February 13, 2013 at 13:50

One must not forget the role of Chinese nuclear tech transfer to Pakistan (to counter India) which further proliferated by Pakistan to North Korea in exchange of missile tech.

If nuclear weapons gets into the hands of Islamic terrorist (which is not impossible considering recent terrorist attacks on vital Pakistani militarty installation as well as rapid radicalization of Pakistani military) the fallout will be on Chinese interest as well as China is very well on Islamic radar and is definately a long term goal for Islamic militancy.


TV Monitor
February 13, 2013 at 10:32

@ Bankotsu

Kim's regime have much time left; the regime will collapse soon unless the economic situation improves and this is why they are in a hurry. 


TV Monitor
February 13, 2013 at 07:42

This is a sign of desperation on the Kim regime's part. The Kim regime's long-term survival depends on normalizing relations with the US; in order for North Korea to reform its economy, it must draw foreign investments and become a low-cost exporter like China. This requires the lifting of the US-imposed sanctions, hence North Korea's desperate attempt to "normalize" relations with the US with the threats of nuclear war; what North Korea's saying is that they would stop making new bombs if the US would sign a non-aggression treaty and lift sanctions. China doesn't matter in the survival of the North Korean regime and this is why China seemingly has zero influence over North Korea.

The key to solving this problem rests in the hands of China. China can decide that 1. having a sane, even if anti-China, neighbor like the ROK is a lot better than having the Kim family extort billions of dollars in free aid every year. 2 And that China is now strong enough to defend itself from anti-China forces moving upto the Yalu river and northern Yellow Sea, and does not need North Korea as a buffer zone. Unfortunately, China is unsure of both, and this is the reason China sticks with North Korea by providing unconditional aids even if North Korea repeatedly slaps and humiliates China in public.  

February 13, 2013 at 07:32

There are a lot of boring idiots in this world, about 99% according to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Setting aside his cheeky dialectical candor, this is undoubtedly the (usually) small price we pay for freedom of thought and speech. Vernor Vinge called it the net of a million lies, I prefer to (badly) paraphrase Mao: let seven billion flowers bloom, no matter how badly some of them might stink.  

Nevertheless and to emulate Mao a lot more than I’d like, there is a case for pruning one particularly rank flower: Robert Farley’s latest opinion piece on the recent D.P.R.K. nuclear test, courtesy of The Diplomat.  

I can appreciate his attempts to undermine what he terms the “professional threat inflation complex,” the chattering classes currently at work hyping this issue. I can also applaud his efforts at demonstrating how un-threatening the test itself it is in the grand scheme of things: nuclear tests have usually followed missile tests and many experts were expecting this. 

What I can’t abide is his cavalier disregard for the purpose of the program itself, his implicit championing of the U.S. hegemonic order in the region aka the “right side of history,” and his bizarre belief in the effectiveness of Cold War-era containment policies vis a vis the D.P.R.K. Unsurprisingly and unfortunately by association, the author seems to have little or no regard for the survival of ‘staunch’ U.S. ally South Korea, to say nothing of the Korean peninsula itself.

That the D.P.R.K. suddenly became an major issue after the First Gulf War, end of the Cold War, and new found American obsession with ‘rogue states,’ is not coincidental with it’s current efforts to obtain a credible nuclear deterrent. Likewise, it is not coincidental that these efforts were accelerated in the wake of the infamous “Axis of Evil” speech and American invasion of Iraq. East Asian historian Bruce Cumings deals with this and the longevity of the Kim dynasty in his excellent work, “Korea’s Place in the Sun.” Collective global amnesia also prevails over the fate of the only regime to willingly give up it’s weapons program. 

The nuclear program is a deterrent, nothing more and nothing less. It’s relative effectiveness in lieu of D.P.R.K. foreign policy objectives can be debated, but the fact the North has not been overrun by ‘Allied forces’ can’t be. Although the missile program has some prestige value vis a vis the South, diminished with the success of the latest Naro launch, the nuclear program has little ambition in this regard. It is a measure of what little security can be obtained against enemies that enjoy overwhelming conventional superiority, and especially one that has constantly demonstrated an appetite for military interventions irrespective of global laws or norms.  

This needn’t imply that the current status quo ante bellum must continue until the D.P.R.K. collapses, as the author suggests. In fact, there have been repeated calls for dialogue aimed at improving relations, ideally leading towards the formal end to the Korean War. Something which the D.P.R.K and the South have long desired. Instead, waiting around for five or fifty years is dangerous, irresponsible to the people of the Korean peninsula, arrogant, and self serving for the major powers of the region who have little wish to even seriously contemplate Korean reunification.

Inter-Korean dialogue should and will continue, irrespective of the wishes of the Great Powers. Ultimate effectiveness remains to be seen, as Park Geun-hye comes to power and domestic issues challenge the new Saenuri party leadership. Meanwhile, it does seem rude and unfair to refer to Robert Farley as a boring idiot; instead his polemic about the “right side of history” makes him more of auseful idiot for the very interests he seeks to discredit in this article. 

 A shame that I am increasingly glad I don’t pay to read The Diplomat.

Citizen of the world
February 13, 2013 at 05:54

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.

The people of North Korea do not. We must include in our calculations the horrible human rights abuses. I fear the North Korean people's enforced silence and the lack of information about it result in everyone looking at it as a geopolitical issue and ignoring the very large human rights and human suffering dimensions.

That said, I'm not sure what we can do. Speaking out may put more pressure on their benefactors, the Chinese government and weaken NK credibility. It's one thing to support a country thumbing its nose at the U.S. and their allies; it's another to support a government that is starving, brutalizing, and murdering its own people. There's no geopolitical rationalization for that. The Chinese public certainly wouldn't like it, at least, and it may stir a reaction due to their own memories.

Why aren't world leaders speaking out about it, every time they mention NK?

February 13, 2013 at 01:26

"Whether that requires five years, twenty-five years, or fifty years, the U.S. and its Northeast Asia allies have time on their side."

In 50 years' time, I dobut U.S will be no.1 power in the world. Maybe DPRK has the time too as well.

Let's wait and see in 50 years' time.

February 13, 2013 at 01:23

 "The appropriate policy response to North Korea remains the same; containment until the regime collapses."

That's why DPRK needs nukes to safeguard against U.S military threats.

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