Last week, on Friday, to mark its September 9 Foundation Day, North Korea carried out its fifth-ever nuclear test. Though estimates regarding the precise yield of the tested device vary, most experts agree that the seismic signature suggests that the fifth test was Pyongyang’s largest ever. North Korea, in its own words, said it tested a “nuclear warhead that has been standardized to be mounted on strategic ballistic rockets of the Hwasong artillery units of the Strategic Force of the Korean People’s Army.” The international response was predictable, featuring an impressive array of stern sentences conveying condemnation--and little else.
If this year of heightened ballistic missile and warhead testing activity hadn’t made it obvious, North Korea wants to make it plain after its fifth nuclear test that its current objective isn’t to seek attention from the international community or to simply prove its technical chops. No. North Korea is racing toward operationalizing a compact nuclear warhead that can be reliably mounted on any one of its many delivery devices–from the intermediate-range Hwasong-10s that it spent weeks testing earlier this year, to the submarine-launched Bukkeukseong-1 or KN-11, and even the as-yet-untested KN-08 (Hwasong-13) and KN-14 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Pyongyang’s statement after the test also reiterated its desire to be considered a “full-fledged nuclear weapons state,” something that the United States and South Korea have resolved to never acquiesce to.
Friday’s test also capped what’s roughly been one of the worst years for bilateral stability on the Korean peninsula since 2010, when North Korea sank the ROKS Cheonan and shelled Yeonpyeong Island. As I discussed last year, in late-August, the two Koreas walked back a particularly worrisome bout of brinkmanship following South Korea’s resumption of loudspeaker broadcasts for psychological effect across the demilitarized zone. I, somewhat over-optimistically, concluded that matters returned to “normal”–well, as normal as they ever could have been–after that crisis. Starting with the first nuclear test in the first week of this year, 2016 quickly shifted the goalposts on what could be considered normal on the Korean peninsula.
If anything, matters have gotten far worse and the prospect of North Korea successfully attaining its long-desired goal of a deliverable nuclear warhead (or a couple dozen, depending on your assessment of how much fissile material it has handy) comes ever closer. The space for inter-Korean diplomacy is nearly nonexistent after Seoul closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the aftermath of the fifth nuclear test. Moreover, reports this week citing unnamed sources within the South Korean government openly talking about a preemptive strike to decapitate the North Korean regime send additional signals of instability to come on the peninsula.
“Every Pyongyang district, particularly where the North Korean leadership is possibly hidden, will be completely destroyed by ballistic missiles and high-explosive shells as soon as the North shows any signs of using a nuclear weapon. In other words, the North’s capital city will be reduced to ashes and removed from the map,” a government source told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, delivering a calculated signal to the Kim regime that the pursuit of nuclear weapons will not have a happy ending. Seoul’s so-called Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation plan may sound impressive and full of resolve, but it’s unclear that the U.S.-South Korea alliance could pull it off without a massive humanitarian toll on either side of the DMZ. (North Korea famously has hordes of artillery and rockets ready to do considerable damage to swathes of Seoul in the event of a resumption of war.)
More importantly, the purpose of having Seoul’s preemptive decapitation attack plans out in the open–even if by way of an anonymously sourced Yonhap report instead of an official spokesperson statement–could be to offer China a degree of incentive to act on the North Korean question. Much ink has been shed both here at The Diplomat and elsewhere in the aftermath of the fifth test on how China’s reluctance to enforce sanctions and bring the hurt down on Pyongyang, despite souring ties between the two old partners, is the cause of all current ills. Among other reasons, China doesn’t want to see either the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang, resulting in a potential refugee influx across the Yalu River. For China, the uneasy status quo on the Korean peninsula is preferable to the alternatives, including the increasingly distant idea of a unified Korea.
Beijing’s prioritization of the status quo doesn’t mean that it likes nuclearization, of course. China’s condemnation of the latest test was swift, if not severe. Still, if Pyongyang’s continued progress toward a credible nuclear strike ability may force Seoul’s hand to move first, Beijing may have to rethink its seemingly unsustainable position of extending the Korean peninsula’s uneasy status quo. North Korea’s threat perception, meanwhile, will continue to intensify as South Korea and the United States gear up for an October show of force involving the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and U.S. B-2 stealth bombers. (Van Jackson has a thoughtful critique of the counterproductive nature of U.S. nuclear signaling in the aftermath of North Korean provocations.)
Next, there’s the matter of the sixth test. With Friday’s detonation, 2016 became the first year since North Korean detonated its first nuclear device in 2006 to see more than one nuclear test. (Somewhat sadly for the cause of global nonproliferation, Pyongyang’s fifth test came just days before the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty.) Two data points, of course, don’t portend a trend, but Pyongyang’s sixth test will be a matter of time. South Korean government sources are already telling the press that Pyongyang is gearing up to use a previously unused tunnel at its Punggye-ri testing site to carry out another test. (For dates, keep October 10, the founding anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, in mind; the date also would mark the decennial of North Korea’s first nuclear test.)
Even with the ongoing debates over yield estimates, North Korea is learning quite a bit about nuclear bomb design with each successive test. Another test six to seven months from now would additionally confirm suspicions that North Korea’s HEU and Plutonium stockpiles are comfortable enough for it to carry on testing. The nightmare scenario of a nuclear test from North Korea is an atmospheric detonation over the Sea of Japan involving a Hwasong-10 intermediate-range ballistic missile or Hwasong-13 intercontinental ballistic missile. (The last atmospheric nuclear test was carried out by China in October 1980; India and Pakistan’s 1998 tests were subterranean.)
At a high level, there’s not much to be optimistic about right now in terms of bilateral stability on the Korean peninsula. With every passing month of ballistic missile and nuclear weapons-related testing, North Korea additionally exposes the inutility of the United States’ policy of strategic patience. As Pyongyang ever-so-steadily marches toward operationalizing a nuclear-armed ballistic missile capable of striking all of South Korea, Japan, U.S. territories and bases in the Pacific and, eventually, the U.S. homeland, the world may find that the conversation has shifted from denuclearizing the Korean peninsula to simply placing caps on North Korea’s nuclear program.
If nothing changes in Beijing and Washington between now and the inevitable sixth test–and I suspect nothing will, particularly in Washington, given the coming leadership transition–expect North Korea to carry on forward with testing and stockpiling. Looking at the Korean peninsula today, it’s increasingly becoming the case that the “happy ending” envisaged during the Six-Party Talks–complete denuclearization on the Korean peninsula–may be fully out of reach barring a catastrophic war wreaking havoc on both sides of the DMZ. In other words, the North Korean nuclear train has entirely left the station.