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North Korea's latest nuclear test is probably not for deterrence

By Liang Nah - posted Tuesday, 12 January 2016


By now, it is evident that North Korea has detonated a fourth nuclear device near its Punggye-ri nuclear facility. While the U.S. Air Force and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization will soon conduct tests to verify the whether the device was a thermonuclear explosive or hydrogen bomb (which is far more powerful than Pyongyang's first three tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 which were non-thermonuclear), the question we should instead be asking is why the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is conducting nuclear tests, rather than what kind of devices were tested.

What Drives Pyongyang's Nuclear Exhibitionism?

Shortly after North Korea detonated a nuclear device at 10am local time on 6 January 2016, the DPRK proclaimed that the device was a hydrogen bomb, and that such devices served as defences against external enemies. Even as we should not discount the Kim regime's siege mentality and Pyongyang's obsession with deterrence, of which the North Korean nuclear weapons program is a key component of, it could be argued that the defensive justification for periodic testing serves as a thin legitimizing veneer for what are essentially domestic and negotiative drivers for nuclear demonstrations.

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Considering that North Korea soil has not been invaded since the 1950-1953 Korean War, that much of the DPRK's military forces are deployed near the demilitarized zone at the border separating the two Koreas, and that South Korea's capital, Seoul is within range of a massive array of North Korean artillery, it is apparent that Pyongyang already has a sufficiently strong conventional deterrence insuring against any possibility of U.S.-South Korean hostility. With this in mind, the former's nuclear weapons look like overkill and hint at the existence of other driving motivations.

Looking back at the 2009 nuclear test, it has been retrospectively argued by Evans Revere, writing in American Foreign Policy Interests, that the Kim regime's second test was carried out to buttress nationalistic sentiment and pride around Pyongyang in the wake of the late Kim Jong-il's debilitating stroke in the summer of 2008. As the then leader-in-waiting, Kim Jong-un lacked leadership experience, such a display of technical achievement provided a stable moral platform for Jong-un to assume leadership[1]. Additionally, the subsequent opposition to the blast from the U.S. and UN allowed Kim to re-direct his peoples' focus away from the DPRK's economic malaise towards foreign enemies, providing a leadership objective for his anointed son, Jong-un. Hence, the display of domestic atomic achievement was and is intended to refresh local perceptions of North Korea's national and military power, strongly suggesting that North Korea will progress under Kim Jong-un.

Thereafter, the third and fourth nuclear devices tested in 2013 and January 2016 respectively can also be seen as technological signals reinforcing North Korean self-esteem while shoring up Kim Jong-un's credibility. These tests might even be more significant for him since his father, Jong-il passed away on 17 December 2011 and he has to show both common North Koreans, as well as Pyongyang's elite, that he is his own man and not ruling in his father's shadow.

Concerning the DPRK's nuclear aggrandizement as a tool to enhance negotiative efficacy with the U.S., Pyongyang's past behaviour as shown below serves as a useful guide.

- Firstly, in 1994 Jong-un's grandfather, Kim Il-sung threatened to process plutonium from spent nuclear reactor fuel rods, which was rewarded by the Agreed Framework where North Korea would receive fuel aid and nuclear proliferation resistant light water nuclear reactors, amongst other benefits.

- Next, after the first nuclear test in 2006, the Kim regime then lead by Jong-il negotiated a deal with the U.S. where the DPRK received fuel aid and delisting from Washington's list of states sponsoring terrorism in exchange for freezing its plutonium based nuclear programme and significant transparency regarding nuclear activities.

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- Following Pyongyang's second nuclear test in 2009, and after extensive negotiations, the Kim regime in 2012 agreed to suspend all nuclear and missile tests along with uranium enrichment in return for 240,000 tons of food aid from the U.S..

What the U.S. and Concerned Regional States could do

By now, even the most dewy-eyed proponent of eventual North Korean negotiated nuclear disarmament should realize that it is not going to happen anytime soon. However, since appeasement of the DPRK by offering it carrots in exchange for denuclearization progress has not worked, and limp wristed United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions hobbled by Russian and Chinese hesitation is ineffectual, how should the U.S. and concerned regional states respond?

As nuclear weapons are a tool to substantiate the leadership credentials, legitimacy, and moral authority and prestige of successive generations of Kim leaders to North Korean citizens and elites, it would be fair to say that nuclear testing and demonstrations of related technology like long range missiles, have an innate value to Pyongyang. Consequently, like trying to convince a hardcore chain smoker to give up cigarettes, coaxing, cajoling, bribing and coercing the Kim regime is going to be fiercely resisted.

Nonetheless, Washington and its regional partners need not sit on their collective hands and do nothing. Even as the UNSC meets to decide what punitive action to take, the aforementioned states can work on convincing the DPRK's leadership, that nuclear and even rocket antics can no longer work as a coercive negotiation tool to seize international attention, and bargain for aid in return for non-substantive denuclearization progress. Drawing an analogy to a spoiled child throwing a tantrum who is willing to quieten down after his parents offer him or her a desired toy or treat, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo should clearly communicate both in words and in deed to Pyongyang that its outbursts will NOT be rewarded in any shape or form, not even with tentative low-level contacts or negotiations. Notwithstanding the links that the Kim dynasty has made, joining nuclear aggrandizement to national pride, the U.S. and its allies could irrevocably "divorce" the North's nuclear weapons from its partial role as benefits "harvester". Once Pyongyang realizes this, there would be lessened utility in nuclear and even missile testing.

Lastly, despite the hermit kingdom's Juche rhetoric championing self-reliant autarky, no nation can truly survive utter isolation. By removing Kim Jong-un's ability to blackmail the U.S., South Korea and Japan into inadvertently sustaining his regime's survival, the DPRK would be driven into a state of isolation that not even his father and grandfather have experienced. Once it dawns upon Kim that his sole international patron, the People's Republic of China has well and truly lost patience with him and his regime (Kim has snubbed President Xi by not meeting the latter while President Park of South Korea has met Xi several times), and might tighten the diplomatic and economic thumbscrews on Pyongyang, perhaps he will see reason and lead the North more responsibly.

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About the Author

Liang Tuang Nah is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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