It seems that only days, if not hours, are left before the North Korean government conducts the nuclear test, which would become the fourth test in the history of the North Korean nuclear programme. North Korean government spokespersons hinted at such a possibility recently, and the satellite images, analysed by the intelligence services of South Korea and the US as well as by independent experts, indicate unusual activity at the North Korean nuclear test site.
Policywise, the timing seems to be perfect, too: On April 25, US President Barack Obama arrived in Seoul. Taking into account the likely political intentions of North Korean leaders, it would help if the test takes place at the time of the presidential visit or shortly afterwards – after all, it is the US government which seems to be the major target of the coming military/diplomatic show, known as the “North Korean nuclear test”.
It might be a simplification to say that North Korea’s likely decision to conduct another test is driven exclusively by political considerations, even though such considerations appear to be predominant. North Korean generals and scientists also have some valid military and technical reasons to test another nuclear device.
To start with, for over a decade, North Korea has worked hard to start production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in order to augment its current nuclear programme which until recently has been based on plutonium technology. The HEU-based nuclear technology has some advantages, and it is also easier to proliferate, so one can understand efforts and resources North Korea now puts in perfecting its HEU programme. So, if the North Koreans have produced enough uranium, it makes sense to test if they know how to make a uranium bomb.
The three nuclear devices North Korea has tested so far all were large and unwieldy, too heavy and unreliable to be mounted into a missile warhead. Since North Korea works hard to acquire full-scale nuclear missile capability, the existent bulky devises have to be ‘weaponised’ and ‘miniaturised’.
There is another reason why the North Korean generals might want another test. It seems that the three nuclear devices North Korea has tested so far all were large and unwieldy, too heavy and unreliable to be mounted into a missile warhead. Since North Korea works hard to acquire full-scale nuclear missile capability, the existent bulky devises have to be “weaponised” and “miniaturised”. To achieve this, additional tests are a necessity.
Nonetheless, the major reasons behind the obvious willingness to test is, clearly, politics. By exploding a nuclear device, North Korea is sending a message to the outside world – and above all, to the US. North Korean policy makers want to show Americans the long-term inefficiency of the policy of the “strategic patience” (also known as the policy of “benign neglect”), long adopted by Washington in its dealing with the Kim family regime in Pyongyang.
The official US position on the nuclear issue is simple and has been reiterated countless times: North Korea will never be recognised as a nuclear power, so it should surrender its nuclear weapons programme as soon as possible. Until Pyongyang takes practical steps towards de-nuclearisation, the US will not engage in meaningful talks, let alone provide economic assistance to North Korea. As long as North Korea does not show any willingness to surrender its nuclear programme, the US should ignore Pyongyang – or so the proponents of the “strategic patience” approach say. So far, Obama has generally followed this prescription.
This approach is unacceptable to the Kim family and the North Korean elite. They have not the slightest intention to surrender nukes, which for them are both a major diplomatic tool and a major security guarantee. They remember perfectly well that the only dictator who ever agreed to surrender his nuclear programme – with terrible consequences – was Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi.
So, from the North Korean point of view, it makes sense to send a clear message to Washington, demonstrating that North Korean engineers and scientists are not going to remain idle while their existence is “benignly neglected” by US diplomats. On the contrary, they are going to work hard, making better – hence more dangerous – nukes, and also increasing the numerical strength of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. In other words, they want to show that every additional year of delays means that the North Korean nuclear programme will become a greater threat for the US and its allies, so time seems to be on Pyongyang side. Nothing would drive this message home as clearly as another nuclear test, especially conducted during a presidential visit or soon afterwards.
Of course, the US and many other countries have already warned North Korean about the “grave consequences” it is going to face if it goes ahead with testing – the last remark of this kind was delivered in Seoul by Obama himself. However, North Koreans have good reason to believe that this time the old pattern will be repeated: After some tough rhetoric, the international community will not do much, and the sanctions will remain ineffective. It is telling that North Korea‘s modest economic recovery roughly coincided with the introduction of sanctions in 2006.
Rewarding the blackmailer?
What does Pyongyang want to achieve by increasing pressure on Washington? Essentially, they want to repeat their favourite trick: They hope to be paid (in monetary and political concessions) for their willingness not to create even more problems. Pyongyang has already made it clear: De-nuclearisation is a non-starter, but North Korea might be willing to freeze the nuclear programme at its current level if rewarded handsomely enough. Pyongyang politicians want to use this assistance largely to counter-weight Chinese influence on their economy which they currently find excessive.
For the time being, the “freezing deal” is not acceptable for the US – largely because it would look like it is rewarding a blackmailer (North Korea first signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and used it to acquire some technology, then walked away from the treaty and developed nukes, and now hopes to be paid for keeping these nukes indefinitely.) However, North Korean rulers are not in a hurry. They are not pressed by the cycles of electoral politics, and they understand perfectly well that the international sanctions, which many people in Washington pin their hopes on, have not worked and so far have little – if any – chance of succeeding.
So, the seemingly imminent fourth nuclear test is designed to be a timely reminder which will bring the world to face some uncomfortable facts: North Korea exists, it has a steadily growing nuclear weapons programme, it wants US money and will not bow to outside pressure or behave as foreigners want it to behave – unless these foreigners are willing to reward the North Korean government, of course.
Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.