What does the latest test mean for North Korea’s nuclear program?
We know North Korea has a uranium enrichment program and we know they want to miniaturize a warhead. What we don’t know is whether this was a highly-enriched uranium device or whether the North’s claim that the device was miniaturized is valid. But North Korea has demonstrated that—as with their missile program—they can make technological progress on weapons even with limited testing: Each nuclear test (this was the third) has produced a greater blast yield. Poke fun at North Korea’s technical prowess all you want, but that’s not just luck.
Why should we care if North Korea miniaturizes a nuclear weapon?
If North Korea has successfully tested a miniaturized device, it is an important step closer to marrying a nuclear warhead to a missile. When that happens, North Korea, for the first time, will pose a credible nuclear threat to South Korea, Japan, and, quite possibly, the United States. This will embolden Pyongyang to act even more aggressively. In 2010, the North sank a South Korean naval vessel and shelled a South Korean island, killing civilians, confident that South Korea and the United States would not respond in kind due in part to Pyongyang’s nascent nuclear deterrent. An enhanced North Korean deterrent will make future, deadlier provocations more likely.
What sort of US/international response can we expect?
The United Nations Security Council, which will meet today, will likely impose more sanctions. The United States and Japan may impose some sanctions unilaterally as well. The big question: How far will China go? Beijing must be frustrated, if not furious, with Pyongyang, which flaunted repeated public (and presumably private) Chinese admonitions not to proceed with the test. China will almost certainly go along with a new Security Council resolution, rather than wield its veto threat to push for a toothless presidential statement. But if it felt so inclined, Beijing could go even further by cutting off or limiting oil shipments, investment, trade, and aid. Given the history, this still seems unlikely, but with new leadership in China—leadership that just might want to see actual, tangible results of its assistance to North Korea—the time could be ripe for a change.
As for the United States, it seems unlikely that Washington will shift its strategy of relying on sanctions and international isolation to pressure Pyongyang. As my colleague Michael Auslin pointed out earlier this morning, there is little to suggest that “the next four years will be different from the past twenty.” On the contrary, there are indications that the Obama administration will remain on the same, pot-hole-strewn road that it and its predecessors have been on for years.
Could this have been avoided?
Of course, it’s impossible to know. But administration officials (both present and former) should have realized long ago that while Security Council resolutions and sanctions may anger North Korea, they have been almost entirely ineffective in getting us any closer to the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula. This is, in large part, because Pyongyang simply has no interest whatsoever in giving up its nuclear weapons program. Failure or refusal to recognize this fact has left us with a failing policy. On the Today Show this morning, Valerie Jarrett asserted that North Korea’s nuclear program “doesn’t strengthen North Korea. It makes it more vulnerable.” Until the Obama administration actually takes steps to convince Pyongyang of that, we’re in for business as usual on the Korean peninsula.