FPI Bulletin: Responding to North Korea’s Nuclear Test

January 7, 2016

North Korea’s latest nuclear test provides another stark illustration of the failure of two decades of U.S. diplomacy toward Pyongyang.  The North’s nuclear capabilities are projected to continue to grow in the years ahead, and the country’s leaders have shown no willingness to negotiate the bomb away. In response, the United States must adopt a new strategy to placing enormous economic and political pressure on the North Korean regime with the ultimate goal of forcing the regime to choose between its survival and its nuclear ambitions.

This week’s test marks Pyongyang’s fourth since 2006 and its second in the past two years. Preparations for the test began as early as April 2014, and the country’s ruler, Kim Jong Un, claimed last month that the North had developed a hydrogen bomb.  If Pyongyang’s claim to have tested a hydrogen bomb is confirmed, then the security situation in East Asia has sharply deteriorated. As Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute writes, “An H-bomb makes North Korea an existential threat to South Korea and Japan.”

However, initial results indicate that the five to seven kiloton yield of Tuesday’s detonation was far lower than what a test of a two-stage fission-fusion device (commonly called a hydrogen bomb) would be expected to produce.  Fred Fleitz of the Center for Security Policy writes that “The small 5.1 magnitude of Tuesday’s seismic event…was the same magnitude of the seismic event that accompanied North Korea’s February 12, 2013 nuclear test, and North Korea’s 2009 and 2006 nuclear tests caused seismic events measuring 4.3 and 4.7, respectively.” According to David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), this means that that North Korea either did not test the thermonuclear device at full yield, or is bluffing about testing a hydrogen bomb entirely and detonated a simple fission device. Another possibility, according to reports, is that North Korea tested a component of a larger-scale thermonuclear device.

One thing, however, is certain: North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are growing.  In April 2015, China warned the United States that Pyongyang may have an arsenal of 20 nuclear warheads, and already had the ability to produce enough highly-enriched uranium to double its arsenal.  Earlier, the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University predicted that North Korea could field an arsenal of as many 100 warheads by 2020.  In October, U.S. Navy Admiral Bill Gortney, the head of U.S. Northern Command and NORAD, told an audience in Washington DC that “We assess that they have the capability to reach the homeland with a nuclear weapon from a rocket.”

The alarming growth in North Korea’s strategic capabilities means that U.S. policy to Pyongyang must fundamentally change.  To its credit, the Obama administration has refrained from engaging in the type of direct or multilateral diplomacy with the North that enabled it to extract concessions from the Clinton and Bush administrations while reneging on its commitments to disarm.  However, the White House has also refrained from taking action to prevent Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations in the first place.  Since denuclearizing North Korea through diplomacy is a lost cause, the United States should instead embark on a new approach of placing extraordinary economic and political pressure on the regime with the ultimate goal of forcing it to choose between its survival and its nuclear ambitions. 

Toward that end, the United States should:

Further Sanction North Korea – Joshua Stanton and Sung-Yoon Lee note in the Wall Street Journal that President Obama not aggressively pursued sanctions against Pyongyang.  For instance, President Obama signed a broad executive order one year ago authorizing the Treasury Department to “freeze any assets of North Korea’s government, ruling party, officials and third-country enablers…A year later, the administration has designated just 18 targets under this order, mostly low-level arms dealers and entities whose assets were already frozen.” Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un and his top deputies are believed to have billions of dollars in European and Chinese banks, and have yet to be sanctioned by the administration.  Furthermore, they note the administration has not designated North Korea as a “primary money laundering concern”—which would cut off Pyongyang’s access to the international financial system. Restoring North Korea’s listing as a state sponsor of terrorism is another step that the administration could quickly take.

A related proposal is the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, which remains stalled in both the House and Senate, and would enable the administration to further target international businesses and groups that flout existing sanctions on North Korea. To their credit, House leadership is reportedly considering holding a vote on the bill as soon as next week.

Expand Strategic Cooperation with South Korea – The United States and South Korea are reportedly in talks to redeploy American nuclear weapons to the peninsula.  This would reverse President George H.W. Bush’s decision to withdraw all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons 25 years ago.  Redeploying U.S. tactical weapons to South Korea would demonstrate the credibility of America’s nuclear umbrella commitment to its allies.

In addition, as Bruce Klinger of The Heritage Foundation notes, Pyongyang has deployed hundreds of missiles capable of striking South Korea and Japan, as well as U.S. bases on Okinawa and Guam. In response, the United States should ask South Korea to allow the deployment of Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense interceptor batteries.  Such a deployment would complement the U.S. and South Korean low altitude missile defense systems stationed on the Peninsula. It would not only signal to Pyongyang that its missile advances will be met with strengthened defenses, but also provide greater security for the U.S. forces deployed for the defense of South Korea.

Curtail North Korea’s Conventional Arms Sales – Bruce Bechtol, a former North Korea specialist at the Defense Intelligence Agency notes that “North Korea has found a very profitable market for proliferating the vast array of conventional, Soviet-era weapons that it continues to manufacture indigenously.”  Pyongyang, he says, “is selling everything from tanks to rifles and ammunition, and is also refurbishing many of these older systems for a number of nations in Africa.” Cutting down on these sales would apply financial pressure on the regime. 

Increase Human Rights Pressure – The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea reported “systematic, widespread and grave human rights violations” in North Korea, and also “a disturbing array of crimes against humanity.”  The panel added, “The gravity, scale, duration and nature of the unspeakable atrocities committed in the country reveal a totalitarian State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”  In response, the panel recommended that the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) refer cases of North Korean human rights abusers to the International Criminal Court for persecution.  At the least, such an effort would force China to decide whether to exercise its veto at the UNSC, providing greater leverage in efforts increase Chinese compliance with sanctions against North Korea.

In addition, Jay Lefkowitz and Christian Whiton, who served as special envoy and deputy envoy for North Korean human rights issues in the Bush administration, recommend the United States “boost financial support for independent civilian media like Free North Korea Radio,” as well as helping North Korean defectors reach safe havens.  Since Kim Jong Un came to power, the number of North Korean defectors that have reached South Korea has been halved—1,277 people in 2015 compared to 2,706 in 2011. 


The North Korean nuclear test shows that U.S. policy has reached a critical juncture. If Pyongyang is allowed to develop an increasingly potent strategic arsenal and flippantly defy the demands of the international community, than other would-be proliferators would receive a powerful signal that they, too, can pursue their nuclear ambitions without consequence.  This concern is even more vital in light of the flawed nuclear deal with Iran that was reached this summer.  

Instead of continuing to place hope in the prospects for a diplomatic settlement that would resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, the United States should recognize that the cause of this ongoing crisis is the North Korean regime itself. As Daniel Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute puts it, “The Kim family cannot be persuaded or otherwise induced to abandon its nuclear program. The regime views nuclear weapons as the key to its survival, both as insurance against U.S.-led regime change and as a means to extort resources for its failed economy.” Unless and until the North Korean regime faces a choice between its survival and its nuclear ambitions, this nuclear crisis will continue.

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