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May 19, 2021
North Korea Conducts Nuclear Test
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Kelsey Davenport

Defying warnings from the international community, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test Feb. 12 at its underground testing site, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced. The blast prompted discussion of the need for a new policy toward North Korea, which had conducted a rocket launch two months earlier.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) confirmed seismic activity in the area “with explosion-like characteristics,” the organization said in a press release later the same day. In his State of the Union address, also on Feb. 12, U.S. President Barack Obama condemned Pyongyang’s “provocations,” saying they will only “further isolate” the country.

The nuclear test was not unexpected. On Jan. 24, North Korea announced that it would conduct a nuclear test, but did not give a specific date. The announcement came two days after the UN Security Council passed a resolution strengthening sanctions against Pyongyang in response to North Korea’s Dec. 12 satellite launch. UN Security Council resolutions prohibit Pyongyang from such launches because the technology required for a satellite launch is directly applicable to ballistic missile development.

North Korea conducted previous nuclear tests in October 2006 and May 2009, although the 2006 test likely misfired partially, according to experts. Pyongyang declared its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in April 2003. Other parties to the treaty have not formally recognized the move, and UN Security Council resolutions from 2006 and 2009 require Pyongyang to halt its nuclear activities and refrain from nuclear testing.

In the KCNA statement, which was issued shortly after the test, Pyongyang said it would continue testing and building its arsenal unless the United States recognized its right to launch satellites and develop its nuclear program.

North Korea is estimated to have enough plutonium for approximately four to eight weapons. As a result of a 2005 denuclearization agreement, Pyongyang currently does not have the ability to produce more plutonium, but has been developing the capabilities to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU). A key question about the February test is whether the device was made from HEU.

Experts say that determining which fuel was used for the nuclear core of the bomb will be very difficult even if the radioactive gases produced by the test are detected by remote monitoring systems. To date, CTBTO radionuclide stations have not detected signs of the test, nor have any national governments publicly reported radionuclide readings from their systems.

According to the CTBTO press release, the seismic activity picked up on Feb. 12 by the organization’s global monitoring system was 4.9 in magnitude, making the explosion about twice as large as the May 2009 test, which was estimated to have produced a yield of two to six kilotons. North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test explosion is estimated to have had a yield of less than one kiloton.

During the run-up to the test, experts had said another possible goal would be to test a miniaturized device so that North Korea eventually could place nuclear weapons on its missiles. The KCNA statement said the test had used a miniaturized device. That claim is difficult for outsiders to substantiate, and the statement did not provide additional details.

“The 2006 and 2009 tests demonstrated that North Korea can build a nuclear device, but that its nuclear arsenal is likely restricted to bulky devices that would need to be delivered by plane, boat, or van, thereby greatly limiting their deterrent value,” Siegfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in an interview published Feb. 14 on the website of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, where Hecker now is a senior fellow.

“This test makes Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal appear more threatening by taking it one more step closer to possessing a missile-deliverable nuclear weapon,” but the North Koreans “have yet to demonstrate that they have developed an intercontinental ballistic missile” (ICBM), he said. To develop an ICBM capable of delivering a nuclear payload, North Korea would require much more flight-testing of its long-range missiles and additional nuclear tests, Hecker said.

Calls for New Policy

Following the most recent nuclear test and satellite launch, many experts and government officials are calling for a new policy toward North Korea.

The current U.S. policy, which administration officials have dubbed “strategic patience,” calls for increasing pressure on North Korea through sanctions while waiting for it to indicate that it is willing to come to talks with a serious intention to follow through on its earlier commitments to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Only then will talks with North Korea resume, according to U.S. officials.

Talks between North Korea and five other countries—China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States—broke down in April 2009 when North Korea indicated that it no longer would participate. Additionally, on Jan. 23 of this year, North Korea formally voided a 1992 joint declaration with South Korea that pledged to keep the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons.

Speaking on Feb. 19 at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies’ conference in Seoul, Robert Gallucci, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea, said that U.S. policy toward North Korea has “failed to reduce the threat posed by North Korea to the security of the region.”

To move forward, Gallucci said, it is necessary to determine the intentions of North Korea’s nuclear program. If Pyongyang’s purpose in developing its nuclear arsenal is to deter an attack by the United States or South Korea, there is “hope for diplomacy,” and the right combination might be found to defuse the situation and build trust, he said. In this case, talks should “address a range of political, economic, and security issues” rather than focusing solely on the nuclear program, but the “endgame” must envision North Korea abandoning its nuclear program, Gallucci said.

On the other hand, if North Korea’s purpose is to threaten the United States with ICBMs or to unify the Korean peninsula by force, then “constant avoidance of conflict,” rather than easing tensions, may be the best that can be achieved, said Gallucci, who now is president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. (The Arms Control Association, which publishes Arms Control Today, receives funding from the foundation.)

Also speaking at the Asan Institute conference, Chung Mong-joon, a member of the South Korean National Assembly, said it is very unlikely that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons. Therefore, he said, the United States, which withdrew all its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991, should strengthen extended deterrence by returning those weapons to South Korea.

In South Korea, there appears to be growing public support for that move after the third test. A Feb. 13-15 poll by the Asan Institute indicated that two-thirds of South Koreans favored the return of these weapons to the country. A similar number supported the idea of South Korea building its own nuclear arsenal, according to the institute.

Another former U.S. policymaker with experience negotiating with North Korea, Joel Wit, argued Feb. 19 that the United States and other countries should continue diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang regardless of whether an agreement can be reached. Diplomacy “provides clarity” about North Korea’s intentions and helps build diplomatic coalitions, particularly with China, he said.

Further Sanctions

The latest North Korean nuclear test is likely to produce further sanctions, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Feb. 12. The Security Council is considering a number of measures, including financial sanctions, she said. North Korea already is subject to a wide range of Security Council and U.S. sanctions designed to impede Pyongyang’s progress on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Further unilateral action by the United States appears likely. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a Feb. 12 press release that he is working on legislation aimed at ensuring that North Korea “pays a price for its continued reckless behavior.”

In a Feb. 24 e-mail to Arms Control Today, George Lopez, a former member of a UN panel that assessed the implementation of sanctions against North Korea, said that it is unlikely that instituting new financial sanctions will have the same impact that they did in the past.

Lopez said that there is no “low-hanging illicit financial fruit”—equivalent to Banco Delta Asia, whose assets the U.S. Treasury Department froze in 2005 after an extensive investigation into the bank’s activities—that could be targeted by financial sanctions. Nevertheless, the United States may put particular banks in China and in the region on “extra warning” and issue statements that they are “off limits” to U.S. and U.S.-related financial entities if they are suspected of dealing with certain North Korean entities, he said. Lopez suggested that the financial sanctions passed by the European Union, including restrictions on the use of gold, can be instructive for “newer and creative measures.”

Furthermore, he said, additional sanctions do not solve the problem of Chinese enforcement of existing sanctions. Chinese leaders may be more likely to support increased enforcement efforts if they believe that there is a potential for Japan and South Korea to move forward with the development of nuclear weapons and missiles, Lopez said.