The Clear Logic of the Latest North Korean Test
Kim Jong Un has a predictable purpose and a plan.
In honor of the Labor Day weekend, North Korea conducted a massive nuclear test on Sunday, its sixth and by far its largest. The test appears to have involved the country’s first true thermonuclear device—a “hydrogen bomb,” involving both fission and fusion. Some of us prefer to hit the holiday sales, but Kim Jong Un, never one to endorse unfettered capitalism, obviously had his own ideas.
Still, it shouldn’t be too surprising. North Korea publicized unspecified nuclear-fusion experiments back in May 2010. Its scientific publications document a handful of such experiments and related activities. Recently, researchers found that a North Korean trading company was marketing lithium-6, an important ingredient for making hydrogen bombs. Well, never mind what I just said about capitalism.
But it’s not as if the North Koreans themselves haven’t been broadcasting their intentions. In December 2015, Kim Jong Un visited a historical site associated with North Korea’s arms industry, declaring the country to be “ready to detonate a self-reliant A-bomb and H-bomb.” On January 6, 2016, the country conducted what it described as its first experimental H-bomb test, although its modest explosive yield provoked doubts in other countries about how much nuclear fusion actually could have been involved.
The doubts were noticed. Two days later, in public remarks at a celebration of the test, Jang Chol, president of North Korea’s State Academy of Sciences, offered a warning: North Korea would continue advancing its weapons technology at full speed. If the country’s enemies belittled the accomplishments of North Korea’s scientists and technicians, he added, “we will deal a crushing blow to the bastards’ heads by detonating another type of hydrogen bomb.”
Moreover, when North Korea started testing its new Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile this spring, Kim Jong Un was quoted as saying that it was capable of carrying a “large, heavy warhead,” which some experts took as an allusion to a hydrogen bomb. The same phrase came up in July after the testing of the Hwasong-14 intercontinental-range ballistic missile, or ICBM.
The timing of the nuclear test should come as no shock, either. North Korea often tests its nukes on holidays or other special dates in the United States. Its first test, on October 9, 2006, coincided with Columbus Day. The second, on May 25, 2009, took place on Memorial Day. The third, on February 12, 2013, took place on the eve of the State of the Union Address, probably forcing some hasty revisions to President Barack Obama’s prepared text.
When North Korea conducted its first ICBM test on July 4 of this year, Kim Jong Un described it as a “gift for the American bastards” to mark the occasion, and pledged to send America more such “gift packages.” As warnings go, that was pretty coy, of course. Equally coy was his remark of last week that the latest Hwasong-12 test flight, which soared over Japan, was a mere “curtain-raiser.” But you don’t have to ask what the next act will be, because Kim Jong Un has already told us: North Korea will fly more missiles over Japan into the Pacific. The Hwasong-14, which the North Koreans now indicate was designed to carry the new H-bomb, is an obvious candidate. Also still on the table is a plan to test multiple Hwasong-12s in the vicinity of Guam, where U.S. bombers are present.
We also know how the United States and its allies will respond—more sanctions. Since there are no sanctions left for the United States to impose directly on North Korea, that presents a choice: either Washington can lean on Beijing, which is responsible for most of North Korea’s foreign trade today, to adopt new sanctions of its own, or it can try to cut out the middleman and levy its own “secondary” sanctions against the Chinese businesses that do business with North Korea.
President Donald Trump has even threatened to hit China with across-the-board tariffs, sometimes indicating that he’ll refrain from this policy if China cooperates on North Korea. As troublesome as Pyongyang can be, it’s starting to look like the tail wagging the dog of U.S.-China relations. But Washington is fresh out of other ideas.
So what do the North Koreans aim to get out of their ceaseless pursuit of new and more shocking demonstrations of missile and nuclear technology? In blunt terms, they want to give Washington other ideas. After observing China’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in the 1960s and watching it stare down America’s “policy of hostility and imperialism” by the early 1970s, the Kim regime seems to believe it can pull off the same trick. According to Pyongyang, America must end its “hostile policy,” which translates to no more sanctions, no more condemnations on human-rights grounds, no more bomber flights and aircraft-carrier movements in its vicinity, and no more annual cycle of combined military exercises with South Korea.
In response to the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure and engagement,” which so far hasn’t featured much engagement, the North Koreans have pledged to “speed up at the maximum pace the measure for bolstering its nuclear deterrence,” taking both “consecutive” and “successive” actions to that end. So far, they’ve kept that promise, testing 18 missiles in the first eight months of 2017.
I have doubts about the efficacy of Kim Jong Un’s plan. There should no longer be any question about his ability to build and deploy missiles and nuclear bombs. But it doesn’t look like any number of tests will convince Washington to rethink its approach, any more than new sanctions will sway Pyongyang. We are stuck, driving each other steadily deeper into our respective corners.
America is in the habit of debating the rationality of its enemies, perhaps assuming that no sane leader could sincerely hate or fear the United States. Less often questioned is whether its own strategies are rational. Do they serve the country’s interests? A policy of ever-expanding sanctions has failed to moderate North Korean behavior in the least, and now threatens to break the relationship between the United States and China, the two most important and powerful countries in the world.
What does the United States gain from any of that? The time has come for a new approach. If it’s not too much to ask, the Trump administration could try trading in the pressure created by sanctions on North Korea for the insecurity created by its continued development of nuclear weapons and missiles. It’s never too late to rethink, but sooner is always better—maybe sometime before Veterans Day weekend?