North Korea’s Nuclear Test: Known and Unknowns

February 12, 2013

North Korea claims to have just conducted its third test of a nuclear device. What is not known is whether the device was plutonium-based like previous devices or uranium-based, which would allow North Korea to produce a larger number of weapons because it continues uranium enrichment but no longer produces plutonium. Whether North Korea has any near-term plans for further provocations is likewise unknown. We do know, however, that the test has serious implications for regional stability and American national security; and that North Korea’s flouting of international norms only further isolates the regime as world governments condemn the test.

NSN Executive Director Heather Hurlburt explains, “As the President prepares to give the State of the Union this evening, the United States stands shoulder to shoulder with its allies in the region; previously reported plans to ramp down U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons will leave the U.S. with forces to deter Pyongyang many times over, while signaling to Asia that a nuclear arms race is not imminent or desirable, and that Washington remains committed to working from a position of strength to protect American and regional interests in peace and stability.”

North Korea’s test – not an immediate threat to U.S. – has serious implications for national security and regional stability. The Associated Press reports that while “North Korea isn’t close to having a nuclear bomb it can use on the United States or its allies,” nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker says Pyongyang wants “to deter us from regime change and to create international leverage and diplomatic maneuvering room.”  Jinho Park, a legislative aide in South Korea, explains the regional significance: “North Korea’s nuclear test will have a significant impact on shaping the strategic mindset of new leaders in Korea, China, and Japan…North Korea’s nuclear test might give Japan a good excuse to accelerate its military buildup as it has vowed to put sanctions on North Korea in response to the test. Japan’s fast-growing military readiness is likely to escalate military tension over disputed islands with China. In the long term, the US military and diplomatic pivot to Asia would face much more uncertainty.” [AP, 2/12/13. Jinho Park, 2/8/13]

North Korean defiance of international norms unites the international community – even Iran – and creates opening for effective response:

Russia: The BBC reports, “Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the North should ‘abandon its nuclear arms programme’, and he called for the revival of talks on the issue”

South Korea: “South Korea’s presidential national security adviser, Chun Young-woo, said the test was an ‘unacceptable threat to the security of the Korean peninsula and north-east Asia… and a challenge to the whole international community.’”

Japan: “Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said it was a ‘grave threat’ to Japanese security and could ‘not be tolerated.’ [BBC, 2/12/13.]

China: The Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement, “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, heedless of widespread international opposition, has again carried out a nuclear test, to which the Chinese government expresses its firm opposition,” reports the Guardian. [The Guardian, 2/12/13]

European Union: EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said, “This nuclear test is a further blatant challenge to the global non-proliferation regime and an outright violation of the (North Korea’s) international obligations not to produce or test nuclear weapons,” reports the Telegraph. [The Telegraph, 2/12/13]

Iran: “Iran commented Tuesday on North Korea’s nuclear test, the third of held by the isolated nation, saying that it ‘disapproves’ of it and calling for a world without nuclear weapons,” AFP reports. [AFP, 2/12/13]

U.S. stands shoulder to shoulder with its allies in a position of military and diplomatic strength. In a statement released this morning, President Obama reiterated that “The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and steadfast in our defense commitments to allies in the region…The danger posed by North Korea’s threatening activities warrants further swift and credible action by the international community.  The United States will also continue to take steps necessary to defend ourselves and our allies. We will strengthen close coordination with allies and partners and work with our Six-Party partners, the United Nations Security Council, and other UN member states to pursue firm action.” [President Obama, 2/12/13]

Critical questions remain about North Korea’s test and future intentions:

Was the device uranium or plutonium? The New York Times reports, “American officials will also be looking for signs of whether the North, for the first time, conducted a test of a uranium weapon, based on a uranium enrichment capability it has been pursuing for a decade. The past two tests used plutonium, reprocessed from one of the country’s now-defunct nuclear reactors. While the country has only enough plutonium for a half-dozen or so bombs, it can produce enriched uranium well into the future.” [NY Times, 2/12/13]

Are more provocations planned? The Associated Press reports, “The National Intelligence Service in Seoul told lawmakers that North Korea may conduct an additional nuclear test and test-launch a ballistic missile in response to U.N. talks about imposing more sanctions…. Analysts have also previously speculated that Pyongyang might conduct multiple tests, possibly of plutonium and uranium devices.” [AP, 2/12/13]

What We’re Reading

President Barack Obama will announce in his State of the Union address that 34,000 U.S. troops will return from Afghanistan by early 2014.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the Pentagon will extend some family benefits to same-sex partners of U.S. military members.

Egyptian protesters clashed with riot police outside the presidential palace in Cairo at a rally marking two years since Hosni Mubarak was ousted.

Two people were killed in clashes in Yemen during rallies marking the 2011 uprising that led to the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Libya will shut its borders with Tunis and Egypt for five days as a security measure ahead of the country’s two-year anniversary marking the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi.

Kenya held its first presidential debate in which the two front-runners both renounced the ethnic politics that have caused bloodshed in the country.

The government of Mali is “hesitant” over the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force.

Syrian rebels say they have captured a military air base near the northern city of Aleppo.

Israel gave final approval for 90 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank.

Police in the Indian state of Assam shot dead at least eight people in violence during local polls over protests that the polls infringed on tribal authority.

The Vatican acknowledged that Pope Benedict XVI has had a pacemaker for years but maintains that the pontiff’s resignation has nothing to do with any specific illness.

Commentary of the Day

Daniel Drezner fact-checks the State of the Union speeches from the past 10 years.

The New York Times Editorial Board evaluates the motives of those trying to block the Hagel nomination.

Dana Milbank offers additional questions for John Brennan.

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