Zachary Keck

Is North Korea Preparing Its Fourth Nuclear Test?

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Zachary Keck

Is North Korea Preparing Its Fourth Nuclear Test?

While the possibility cannot be ruled out, there’s little reason to believe another nuclear test is imminent.

On Tuesday a senior South Korean lawmaker warned that a number of signs suggest that North Korea is preparing for another long-range missile and fourth nuclear test.

Yonhap News Agency reports that at a meeting of the ruling Saenuri Party, Rep. Cho Won-jin, a ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, suggested that another long-range rocket and nuclear test might be conducted in order to shift domestic attention away from the purge of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of current leader Kim Jong-Un and formerly the second most powerful man in Pyongyang.

Cho did not elaborate on what these signs were making it unclear if there is actual technical evidence that North Korea is preparing for another missile or nuclear test. In recent months, South Korean leaders have said that Pyongyang is ready to conduct a fourth nuclear test and could do so in short order once a decision is made to take this action. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has also warned about possible provocations coming from the North following the purge.

Although South Korean leaders are likely correct in stating that North Korea is capable of conducting another nuclear test, Pyongyang is believed to only possess a handful of nuclear devices and a limited amount of fissile material to replace devices used in tests. At the same time, it has restarted its plutonium reactor in Yongbyon and is believed to be enriching uranium both of which could help replenish its stocks of fissile material.

A missile and nuclear test would also make sense from the perspective of Kim Jong-Un’s current desire to court the military. Although his tenure has been characterized by cautious attempts to move away from his father’s military first policies, many observers fear that the purge of Jang could reverse this process. North Korean leaders reaffirmed the wisdom of Kim Jong-il’s military first policy at events this week commiserating the second anniversary of his death in 2011. At the very least, Kim Jong-Un needs the military’s full support in the likely scenario that he seeks to purge Jang’s wide-network of supporters from across the North Korean government. In this sense, new missile and nuclear tests would make sense.

At the same time, while it is commonly asserted that North Korea’s external provocations are motivated largely by the country’s domestic political situation, it’s far from certain that this is actually the case. North Korea’s decision to end its long-standing moratorium on long-range rocket tests in 2006, and to conduct its first nuclear test that same year, seemed to be motivated primarily by Pyongyang’s desire to get particularly pointed U.S. sanctions removed.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s missile and second nuclear test in April and May 2009 appeared to be motivated by the breakdown in six-party talks at the end of 2008, as well as the U.S. decision to halt heavy fuel shipments to North Korea as a result of this breakdown. Additionally, some observers believed Pyongyang simply wanted to test the new U.S. administration in Washington. North Korea’s most recent round of rocket and nuclear tests at the end of last year and the beginning of this year coincided with leadership transitions in China, South Korea and Japan, as well as the reelection of Barack Obama in the United States.

North Korea has strong technical interests in continuing to test long-range missiles and nuclear devices as it seeks to acquire a reliable, operational nuclear deterrent. As Jennifer Lind, Keir Lieber and Daryl Press pointed out after the third nuclear test, while speculation that the tests are motivated by a desire to send signals to domestic or foreign audiences, “A much simpler explanation exists. Pyongyang tested a nuclear device for the same reason it has been testing long-range missile designs: to see what works. In truth, the effort was less a signal than an attempt to master the technical capabilities that are vital to its nuclear deterrent.” They point out that such an explanation would hardly make North Korea unique; the U.S., Soviet Union and many other nuclear powers conducted thousands of tests during the Cold War to ensure their nuclear deterrents were reliable.

It’s worth noting that a missile or nuclear test are not the only options Kim Jong-Un has available to him to engage in external provocations in an effort to appease the military. This week North Korea has been reinforcing a military buildup along its western coast and dropped leaflets threatening to annihilate troops stationed on Baeknyeong Island. In 2010, North Korean forces shelled Yeonpyeong Island.

In short, while we can’t rule out the possibility that a North Korean missile and nuclear test is imminent, there’s generally not much cause for concern absent technical evidence suggesting that North Korea is preparing for one. If North Korea does decide to engage in this action, however, expect it to first conduct a long-range missile test (which it will call a rocket test), wait for the international community’s reaction, and then use this response to justify a fourth nuclear weapons test.