In the wake of new UN sanctions condemning North Korea’s recent satellite (missile) test, Pyongyang has reiterated its defiance towards perceived international hostility. The DPRK’s Foreign Minister was quick to issue a statement asserting that the North will undertake “physical counteraction” to enhance “nuclear deterrence both qualitatively and quantitatively.”
The North Korean National Defense Commission (renowned for its fiery rhetoric) went further on Thursday stating, “a variety of satellites and long-range rockets which will be launched by the D.P.R.K. one after another and a nuclear test of higher level which will be carried out by it” will be “targeted” at “the U.S., the sworn enemy of the Korean people.”
North Korea’s two pervious nuclear tests were also conducted months apart from missile tests, suggesting that a third nuclear test would follow a similar pattern. Satellite images have reinforced this sentiment as Pyongyang has sought to maintain the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility operational despite heavy flooding in the region. The Punggye-ri facility was shown to have suffered from flooding throughout the summer and fall, with water still streaming out of the tunnel in November and December.
Despite the possible setback, imagery has shown the North Korean’s have moved to contend with the water, and a new structure, which is believed to be a data gathering station, has been installed and reinforced from the weather. Water and poor weather still could become a factor in the North’s decision to test, particularly if they believe it could compromise the detonation.
It should be noted that the North has sought to maintain a state of readiness for a third nuclear test for some time. Going back as far as August, reports were circulating that Pyongyang was capable of conducting a nuclear test within two weeks once a political decision had been made. However while rumors of a nuclear test also circulated then, Pyongyang issued a statement insisting there would be no test, contrary to the present situation.
Professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies has been vocal in his skepticism over an imminent test arguing, “Chances are slim that the North might push ahead with a nuclear test in this winter season, especially when China is insisting on a moderated response to the rocket launch to prevent a third nuclear test taking place.” However given that China has actually consented to the UNSC passing new sanctions (though extremely weak ones at that) over the North, it is unknown weather Pyongyang will feel more or less inclined to take further provocative action.
The outcome of a successful third nuclear test could have drastic consequences. Given the revelation of North Korea’s highly enriched uranium (HEU) facility in 2010, there is a high possibility that a third nuclear test will involve a uranium, rather than plutonium, based device. HEU-based nuclear weapons are far more powerful than plutonium and could allow the North to augment their explosion yields. Additionally a recent UNSC report stipulated, “through its contacts with Abdul Qadeer Khan, [North Korea] probably had ample access to designs for nuclear warheads, including the HEU-based one developed for the Ghauri missile, a twin missile of [the DPRK’s] Nodong”.
The successful test of a plutonium-based device could also mean dramatic advancements for the DPRK. As the Board of Atomic Scientists has concluded, “Without at least one more successful plutonium test, it is unlikely that Pyongyang could have confidence in a miniaturized plutonium design” capable of being placed on an ICBM. While both of these conclusions are not finite, they do represent the possibility for significant advancement by North Korea.
There will be those who argue that in light of such revelations, a harder approach is required to coerce Pyongyang into submission. However such an approach fundamentally misunderstands the drive and motivation behind North Korea’s actions. One need only turn to Kim Jong Un’s New Years Speech, propaganda posters with phrases like “Let Us Bring About a Radical Turn in the Building of an Economic Giant with the Same Spirit and Mettle as Were Displayed in Conquering Space!”, and missile “stamps” to understand the patriotic fervor behind the country’s missile and nuclear program.
Understanding the motivation and history behind North Korea’s nuclear program will be the key to informing a strategic policy that enhances U.S. security.