North Korea’s Nuclear Wake-Up Shot

Daryl G. Kimball

North Korea’s third nuclear weapons test explosion, in defiance of its lone remaining ally, China, and the rest of the international community, should prompt a reappraisal of Beijing’s accommodating attitude toward its neighbor and rejuvenate U.S.-led diplomacy designed to freeze and reverse Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

Pyongyang’s Feb. 12 nuclear test produced a significant yield, estimated to be six to seven kilotons. Although one more test does not fundamentally change the security threat North Korea poses, this test has undoubtedly taken it one step closer to possessing a missile-deliverable nuclear warhead.

North Korea already has a substantial arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles with conventional warheads. However, it has not yet demonstrated a nuclear-armed, intercontinental-range ballistic missile capability, which would require many more flight tests and additional nuclear test blasts.

It also is likely that North Korea used highly enriched uranium (HEU) rather than plutonium for this test. This is significant because its plutonium supply is limited, perhaps enough for fewer than 10 bombs, but its HEU production capacity is probably expanding.

As part of the six-party denuclearization process, North Korea shut down its plutonium-production facility at Yongbyon. Yet, North Korea has built centrifuge arrays that could enable it to generate HEU for one to two bombs per year.

If its nuclear and missile programs continue unchecked, North Korea could amass a larger and more deadly nuclear arsenal in the next few years. This could pose a much more significant threat to the region, embolden Pyongyang to take greater risks, prompt counteractions by South Korea and Japan, and increase the risk that Pyongyang sells fissile material to another country or to terrorists in exchange for much-needed hard currency.

The seriousness of this issue demands a full-court press by the international community. The United States needs to work more closely than ever to coordinate policy with other stakeholders in the region.

Although it is important not to reward irresponsible behavior, it is also irresponsible for the United States to maintain a policy of “strategic patience” while the North’s capabilities grow. “Naming and shaming” and further sanctions on the North through the UN Security Council are certainly justified in the wake of the latest nuclear test, but by themselves, such responses will not produce adequate results.

North Korea’s latest nuclear blast is not just a rebuke of the international community’s call for nuclear restraint, but an embarrassment for China and a test of leadership for Xi Jinping, the new Communist Party secretary.

In the wake of Pyongyang’s 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests, China reacted negatively and voted for tougher UN sanctions, but did not significantly curtail aid and assistance to North Korea. This time, Beijing must recognize that Pyongyang’s actions represent a direct threat to China’s long-term interests and security, and its leaders must take stronger steps to implement existing UN sanctions. Doing so would not lead to a collapse of North Korea as Beijing’s leaders fear, but would help moderate the confrontational behavior of the North’s young leader, Kim Jong Un.

Although some believe Chinese influence on Pyongyang is overestimated, it is clear that Beijing could do much more to apply pressure. Past Chinese diplomatic and economic support has allowed North Korea to ignore world opinion and advance its nuclear and missile capabilities in spite of the desperate state of its economy and hunger-ravaged population.

To protect its interests and credibility, it is important that Beijing now demonstrate that its policy of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula is sincere and that the unanimous resolutions of the UN Security Council demand respect.

As difficult as Pyongyang’s leaders are, U.S. President Barack Obama also must renew efforts to engage in serious negotiations designed to curtail North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, with the long-term goal of achieving verifiable and complete nuclear disarmament.

Although North Korea’s leaders might not, for now, be willing to negotiate away their nuclear weapons program altogether, they still appear to be willing to abandon portions of it in exchange for improved relations with the United States, a formal end to the Korean War, and the possibility of much-needed energy and economic support. U.S.-led negotiations, combined with stronger Chinese pressure on the North, could bring a halt to further nuclear and missile tests.

The latest North Korean nuclear test also is a blow to the global nonproliferation system. In response, the world’s nuclear-armed states, specifically the United States, China, and India, have a responsibility to help reinforce the global taboo against testing by doing their part to bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force.

Given the nuclear dangers lurking over the horizon, it is essential that Washington and its allies in Asia pursue more energetic and effective strategies to ensure North Korea’s nuclear program remains as limited as possible.