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Commentary | 4 June 2013

The significance of new developments in North Korea’s nuclear program

Victor Cha |Senior adviser and the inaugural holder of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

North Korea Nuclear Weapons Security Global Security

The most significant development thus far in 2013 regarding North Korea has been its third nuclear test , conducted on February 12 – the first under Kim Jong-un and shortly after his acceding to power one year ago. Kim Jong-un appears not only to be committed to completion of his father’s unfinished project, but also willing to pressure its biggest enemy, the United States, and embarrass its biggest ally, China, at the same time. The sudden test came a day before President Obama’s State of the Union address on the 13th February, and during the Chinese New Year, the most important holiday of the year for Beijing.

The underground nuclear test took place at 11:57 am (local time), when an “artificial earthquake” from the north-eastern part of the country was detected by the U.S. Geological Survey with a magnitude of 5.0 – 5.1. The magnitude alone suggests a stronger and more powerful device than the previous two tests in 2006 and 2009, which respectively were 3.9 and 4.4 each. This new development was confirmed shortly afterwards by the DPRK’s official news agency, the KCNA in a statement proudly praising the success of the test in the “scientific field for national defence of the DPRK”, as displayed by the “smaller and light A-bomb, unlike the previous ones, yet with great explosive power.(1)”

Aside from its size and power, the suspicion that it was a uranium-based nuclear test – a first for the DPRK’s program – poses new problems in the continuing efforts to denuclearize North Korea. Three headaches immediately come to mind: (1) Pyongyang now has two ways to make a bomb, doubling the problem; (2) highly-enriched uranium (HEU) is easier to hide than the previously-used plutonium – a bigger challenge for the already difficult task of locating these materials by observers and inspectors; and lastly, (3) the potential for uranium production is greater than plutonium production, which increases the possibilities for the horizontal proliferation of these materials to partners such as Iran. With this third nuclear test, North Korea has “crossed another technological barrier in mating a nuclear warhead with a long-range ballistic missile that could threaten U.S. security and that of its allies,(2) ” moving it one step closer to its goal of deploying long-range intercontinental nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United States.

Why conduct a third test? As CSIS non-proliferation expert Sharon Squassoni notes, “First and foremost is a desire to demonstrate a successful nuclear weapon detonation to advance its weapons program”(3)  The second objective is that Pyongyang may want to perform a fait accompli with this test and compel the Obama administration to deal with North Korea as a full-fledged nuclear weapons state. President Obama responded in his subsequent address by warning that such provocations “will only isolate them further,” and that we will “stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm actions in response to these threats.(4)”

A third objective for the test relates to the inter-Korean dynamic. Such provocations are hardly unprecedented. North Korea has the tendency to conduct some form of provocation within weeks of every South Korea presidential inauguration dating back to 1992 to test the new government as it enters office.(5)  This is regardless of whether that new government is liberal and more engagement-oriented or more conservative.

For the new South Korean president Park Geun-hye, North Korean provocations and blustery rhetoric complicate her “trustpolitik” strategy aimed at establishing a baseline of trust in the relationship to reduce tensions. The North Korean shutdown of major inter-Korean cooperation projects like the Kaesong Industrial Complex this spring only make it harder for the new South Korean president to advance any diplomacy with her neighbor.

As Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping meet on June 7 and 8 in Sunnylands, California, the North Korea problem is sure to be among the top three agenda items for the two leaders. Beijing has shown a great deal more public frustration with North Korea’s ornery behavior and in May 2013 sanctioned a prominent North Korean bank that operated accounts out of the Bank of China. Beijing has the most material influence on North Korea and shares the U.S. objective to have a peninsula free of nuclear weapons. However, this coincidence of interests is not enough to engender serious cooperation between the two major powers. China’s willingness to squeeze North Korean with sanctions is constrained by its fear that such pressure could collapse the regime raising potential chaos on its border. Obama may need to do his own form of trust-building with the Chinese leader on this issue, if Sino-American cooperation is to take root.

(1) KCNA Report on Successful 3rd Underground Nuclear Test, KCNA, February 12, 2013.

(2) Victor Cha, Ellen Kim, “North Korea’s third nuclear test,” Critical Questions, February 12, 2013.

(3) Sharon Squassoni, “Escalation, North Korean Style,” cogitASIA, April 5th, 2013.

(4) Transcript of the State of the Union 2013

(5) Victor Cha, Ellen Kim. “UN Security Council Passes New Resolution 2094 on North Korea.” Critical Questions. March 7, 2013.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.