The North Korean Bomb Test—What's Next?

A ChinaFile Conversation

On Wednesday, North Korea claimed that it had tested a hydrogen bomb, bringing to four the number of nuclear weapons it has set off on its own territory since 2006. The act drew international condemnation, including from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who called the detonation “profoundly destabilizing.” What’s different this time? Does condemnation of the test from China, North Korea’s greatest ally, matter? Shouldn’t the U.S. and China, or China and South Korea, or China and Japan, use nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula as an issue over which to stand united? —The Editors


I take Kim Jong Un at face value. North Korea’s young leader has said repeatedly that he wants his country to be a nuclear power, and I don’t think there is any need to parse his words for any hidden meaning. For many years, Pyongyang used its nuclear program as a method to extract international aid and recognition, bartering nukes for energy assistance and money and attention. In 1994, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for the building of a light-water reactor and energy assistant. The agreed framework, as it was called, fell apart almost as soon as George W. Bush became president. One can argue about whose fault that was, but there is no doubt the deal was never replaced by anything durable. There was a glimmer in 2008 when North Korea theatrically blew up the cooling tower of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor in front of CNN television camera, but that deal, which promised food aid and the lifting of sanctions, quickly unraveled.

For years, subsequent U.S. administrations have been promising the North Koreans that if they give up their weapons of mass destruction they will receive a package of rewards—food aid, money, investment, technology, recognition, and respectability. The North Koreans are no longer listening to that message. “If the (U.S.) thinks we have acquired our nuclear weapons to trade them for some economic benefits, it will be nothing but an utterly absurd miscalculation,’’ a North Korean foreign minister spokesman said in 2013 in the most explicit of many statement to this effect.

What has changed? The ruling Kim family interpreted the invasion of Iraq and even more so, western support for the ouster of Libya’s Moammar Khadafy, as proof that nuclear weapons were more important to his regime than money for survival. In North Korea’s view, Khadafy was a fool to take the bait. Since Kim Jong Un took over from his father in late 2011, he has been developing a strategy that he calls byungjin, a rough translation for “simultaneous”—as in North Korea thinks it can develop its economy and its nuclear program simultaneously. With this latest nuclear test, Kim is betting that the international community won’t come up with any more biting sanctions than after the last three nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013. North Korea will be a de facto nuclear state and any future negotiations will proceed from there. Unless Washington or Beijing pay attention this time, Kim’s bet might just pay off.

On the morning of January 6, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear weapons test at a site close to its border with China, claiming it had successfully conducted a thermonuclear weapon test for the first time. It will take days and possibly weeks to determine (to the extent that available data allow) the credibility of these claims, and what the test indicates about the North’s longer-term weapons potential and nuclear goals.

Based on the size of the seismic waves detected at various monitoring stations near North Korea, Pyongyang’s claim to have successfully tested a thermonuclear device is not credible. It is more plausible that the test might have been a “boosted” fission weapon, though this remains to be proven, as well. Regardless of the ultimate assessments of the expert community, the North’s four nuclear tests, its continued accumulation of fissile material, ongoing missile development, and active exploration of a sea-based delivery option reveal a clear determination to persist with all dimensions of its weapons program.

The political implications of the test are also indisputable. Pyongyang has again reminded the outside world that it is fully prepared to defy existing international agreements for its own purposes, regardless of the consequences for global or regional security or for nuclear non-proliferation as a whole. Irrespective of the costs that the international community has sought to impose on North Korea, these have not been sufficient to convince or compel Pyongyang to behave differently.

North Korea is in a category all its own. It is the only state to formally withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It has enshrined nuclear weapons in its constitution and displays no interest in pursuing denuclearization on terms that any other country would deem acceptable. It is also the only state to test nuclear weapons in the 21st century. In the face of near-universal condemnation and repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions and enhanced sanctions, the North’s nuclear efforts persist. If anything, the leadership takes ample pride in the program, deeming the latest test as “100 percent based on our own wisdom, our technology, and our power…As a result, the DPRK has proudly risen to the front rank of nuclear states.”

The North Korean leadership has thus convinced itself (if not others) that its existence as an autonomous state derives directly from its possession of nuclear weapons. It explicitly contrasts its continued survival to the fate of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, contending that nuclear weapons are essential to ensure the regime’s survival. It is no surprise that North Korea characterizes the supposed malign designs of outside powers to justify the prodigious costs of such a program, and the grievous implications for the well-being of its own citizens.

The North Korean leadership has thus convinced itself (if not others) that its existence as an autonomous state derives directly from its possession of nuclear weapons.

What can be done? Additional U.N. Security Council sanctions will very likely be imposed, which (if nothing else) will demonstrate a shared stand in opposition to the North’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. The international community, including China and Russia, has long since muted the international “blame game” apportioning responsibility for the persistence and expansion of the North’s nuclear efforts.

For the indefinite future, the goal must be to sustain as broad an international coalition as possible, beginning with a shared recognition that the development and diversification of North Korea’s weapons programs is a common threat, not directed at any one country. But collective interests need to be translated into the actions of individual states, and the willingness of all to coordinate their actions.

North Korea’s weapons programs is a common threat, not directed at any one country.

China’s role will be critical in this process. At present, North Korea’s economic dependence on China continues to grow, even as Kim Jong-un defies Xi Jinping at every turn. It seems likely that attention will soon turn to additional restrictions on international banking activity in North Korea, and the role of Chinese banks will be central. Major Chinese banks do not want to find themselves sanctioned for their activities in the North and the day may not be too distant when these banks will need to choose: Do they sustain involvement in the North, even if it affects their much larger interests in international banking as a whole? The choice seems clear.

Such measures do not guarantee an outright cessation of the North’s nuclear activities, but they will make explicit the price that Pyongyang will have to pay if it continues or (even worse) expands its nuclear efforts. An explicit inhibition strategy is essential if the outside world is to deny North Korea the nuclear status it seeks, and prevent the North’s nuclear weapons program from having even more dire consequences.

— This post originally appeared on the blog.

Was the official statement by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs particularly harsh?

No. China’s foreign ministry statement said that it is “firmly opposed” to North Korea’s nuclear test. It “strongly” urged the D.P.R.K. to honor its commitment to denuclearization and “stop taking actions that worsen the situation.” The statement also underscored China’s resolve to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue within the framework of the Six Party talks. This language is virtually identical to the wording that China’s foreign ministry used after the North’s February 2013 test. A sentence from the 2013 statement that was not included this time called on all parties “to respond in a cool-headed manner.” The exclusion of any reference to other parties suggests that Beijing is putting the onus on North Korea to act and views a strong international response as acceptable.

After North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, China issued a much tougher statement. It accused the D.P.R.K. of defying the “universal opposition of the international community” and “flagrantly” conducting the test. Use of the term “flagrantly” up till then had been used to condemn the actions of putative adversaries, not those of a socialist ally. That term was not been again in official Chinese statements that were issued following North Korea’s subsequent nuclear or long-range missile tests.

Is China likely to support tightening sanctions on North Korea?

Beijing is likely to join in United Nations Security Council (U.N.S.C.) actions to condemn North Korea’s latest nuclear test, including authorization of a new U.N.S.C. resolution that includes another round of sanctions. China may be more willing than in the past to strictly enforce existing and new U.N. sanctions, for example by conducting more rigorous inspections of vehicles crossing the border China-North Korea and more closely monitoring the cargo carried by North Korean flights over Chinese territory. China may also be prepared to take unilateral steps to put pressure on North Korea, including delaying delivery of oil and other forms of assistance. However, it is unlikely that China will agree to actions that could endanger stability and lead to economic or political collapse, and result in sudden Korean unification with the potential deployment of U.S. troops close to the Chinese border. Gaining Chinese support for U.N. sanctions that focus on the banking sector is likely to meet with resistance.

Since North Korea’s first nuclear explosion, Beijing has recognized the need to employ pressure in dealing with its sometimes unruly ally. From China’s perspective, however, sanctions and other forms of pressure must be part of a broader strategy that includes positive inducements and dialogue. Such a “grand bargain” might include security assurances, economic assistance, and diplomatic recognition by the United States and Japan. Sanctions alone, the Chinese believe, are unlikely to persuade Pyongyang to denuclearize.

What is China’s most immediate concern and does it see any opportunities in this crisis?

Preserving domestic stability is, as always, the top concern of Chinese leaders. The nuclear test took place approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the China-North Korea border. Tremors from the explosion spread into northeastern China, raising anxieties about possible injuries to citizens as well as contamination of the air, water, and soil. Chinese schools situated in towns close to the border were evacuated. China’s Foreign Ministry said that environmental officials were monitoring for possible radiation near the border, but had not detected anything abnormal in the immediate aftermath of the test. The Chinese Communist Party will attach priority to ensuring the safety of Chinese citizens and preventing discontent that could lead to online criticism of the C.C.P. or even protests.

China will also seek to use this opportunity to bolster its image as a responsible international stakeholder and improve relations with the United States. By supporting U.N. sanctions, China will showcase its willingness to uphold international law. Prior cooperation with the U.S. has won Beijing praise from both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. With friction persisting on a number of issues, including cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property and Chinese island building and militarization of the South China Sea the Chinese will capitalize on North Korea’s nuclear test to engage in limited cooperation with Washington.

How will China’s relations with North Korea likely be affected?

China’s relations with North Korea have been strained in recent years primarily due to North Korea’s insistence on pursuing its nuclear weapons program. After a prolonged period of tension during which high-level exchanges were suspended, Beijing became anxious about its lack of both knowledge about developments inside North Korea and channels to Pyongyang and subsequently launched an effort to repair frayed ties. In mid-2015, China hosted Choe Ryong-hae at its military parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. A month later Beijing dispatched Liu Yunshan to Pyongyang to attend its military parade, the first visit by a member of China’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee since 2011. The nascent improvement in China-North Korea relations apparently suffered a setback when Kim’s favorite North Korea pop band canceled its performances in China, possibly because of Pyongyang’s claim to possession of a hydrogen bomb.

North Korea’s decision to conduct a fourth nuclear test will likely further sour China-D.P.R.K. ties. Pyongyang apparently did not provide any notice to Beijing prior to the test, which it had done prior to previous tests. Given China’s persistent diplomatic efforts to reconvene the Six Party Talks and its repeated urgings to North Korea to return to its denuclearization commitments, Kim Jong-un’s decision to proceed with another nuclear test is a statement of defiance and a slap in China’s face. Xi Jinping, who has been unwilling to spend any political capital on improving ties with Pyongyang, will likely be further convinced that his emphasis on developing relations with Seoul is correct. In the absence of a change in North Korea’s stance on its nuclear program Xi is unlikely to agree to meet with Kim Jong-un for the remainder of his term in office, which extends to the end of 2022. It cannot be ruled out that Xi will undertake a recalibration of China’s policy toward North Korea in an effort to more effectively protect and advance Chinese interests going forward.

—This post originally appeared on the Center for Strategic and International Studies blog.

The new year has not started off well at all for China, what with its stock market plunge and the latest provocation by not-so-neighborly North Korea. Regardless of its veracity, the announcement of a hydrogen bomb test constitutes a major dis to China, especially in light of recent efforts by China to improve ties between the two sides.

I agree that China can play a significant role in exerting more pressure on North Korea, including through its economic leverage and support of U.N. sanctions. However, expectations of what China can or cannot do to elicit a positive change in North Korea’s behavior need to be tempered against the fact that relations between these two countries have changed under their current leaders.

Kim Jong-un’s actions, including this week’s announcement, indicate a desire for North Korea to be respected as a nuclear power and an unwillingness to be a junior partner to China. Chinese president Xi Jinping has moved away from his predecessors’ practice of staunchly standing by North Korea as an historical ally; three years into his term as Chinese Communist Party general secretary, he has not yet met with Kim, opting instead to foster closer ties with South Korea.

China’s open criticisms of North Korea’s actions, especially the latter’s repeated nuclear tests, reflect not only thinning patience over North Korea but also frustration over a diminishing ability to gain accurate insights into Kim’s motivations.

The North Korea nuclear issue is also a prime example of a “cooperation conundrum” for China and the United States. Both share a common interest and goal in seeking denuclearization of North Korea and the Korean peninsula. But their approaches have differed, largely due to diverging strategic concerns.

U.S. concerns about the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea to its Asia allies—especially Japan and South Korea—and to U.S. soil have been a key driver behind efforts to strengthen security cooperation, such as the recently revised U.S.-Japan defense guidelines (reflecting Japan’s more proactive defense posture) and a possible U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. These developments have left China jittery about their effects on its security and strategic deterrence.

China itself faces a delicate balancing act. Repeated brinksmanship by Kim may encourage China to undertake or support a further mix of incentives (e.g. diplomacy) and especially disincentives (e.g. sanctions) to rein in North Korea. Yet, it may still hold back, due to worries about overplaying its hand and forcing North Korea into a corner, eliciting instability on China’s border, and possibly leading to eventual Korean reunification and a U.S. ally on China’s doorstep.

Any discussions between the U.S. and China on coordinating efforts to stem the North Korea nuclear problem will need to take those concerns into account. Another question for the U.S., China and the international community is whether North Korea denuclearization is still a realistic goal in the foreseeable future. With this latest nuclear test—North Korea’s fourth—Kim appears to have answered with a resounding “no.”