Reports quoting unnamed US sources are discussing the possibility of another nuclear test in North Korea. The Arms Control Wonk, as ever, gives a good read out on the reports, noting that some sources say a test is coming while other sources say no test is imminent.
What will happen and what are the ramifications?
What will happen?
From what I can understand from the previous test the indications of another detonation are going to be minimal, as it will probably be an underground test and the site may have been prepared a long time ago. Remember after the October test that there was a delay while interested countries tried to confirm whether a test had occurred. There was a seismic reading and later there were particles in the air. The one bit of evidence not discussed was a collapsed section of earth at the test site. (Wikipedia has a good photo of what I assumed should have been visible in the DPRK to a lesser or greater extent.) The actual site of the test was determined by triangulating the seismic readings not by looking from space at where it was presumed to have occurred. There was no big mark on the ground to show where the test actually occurred. (If you want to familiarise yourself with the test then check out Wikipedia’s entry on it.) All these indications were after the test occurred.
Like now, soon after the test there was talk about strange movements in the area in news reports prompting journalists to speculate about another test. I suspect that we will not know that another test is about to occur. There could be a number of reasons to move around the test site that are not connected to the testing of a device. This is different to a missile test where a missile has to be assembled, fuelled, assembled, etc. With a missile test it is very observable. In theory, it may be possible to see the nuclear device being loaded into a site but what does the device look like? A big box? Experts say that it is possible to know when satellites are passing overhead, so could a device be loaded while a satellite is not observing?
The recently released ROK Defence White Paper assesses that the DPRK has 40-50kg of plutonium capable of making seven devices. This is not much really to develop a nuclear weapon with, if other countries with their multiple tests are any guide (India 5-6 tests and Pakistan3-6 tests). While Yongbyon may be able to produce more plutonium, it may be having troubles and it could only produce 6kg of plutonium a year according to Dr Siegfried Hecker. Dr Hecker also said that the other two reactors were not being progressed, although the North Koreans claimed to him that the 50MWe reactor could be finished within a couple of years. Despite this, if this is a program to develop a weapon then the North will probably need to test again to improve/modify the design.
In theory, in one of the absolute worse case scenarios, they probably now have a ‘doomsday device’ that they could detonate in Pyongyang as the US-ROKcapture the city as a final act of North Korean vengeance. (A more paranoid option may be placing the device in a ship and sailing it towards the US to detonate but I suspect that the USN would probably be concerned about a North Korean vessel fleeing the DPRK during a war. A pre-positioned device sounds like a Tom Clancy plot.)
Likewise, if you believe that the nuclear test was to get a political compromise with the US, which is probably not likely, then there will probably be another test. This theory seems somewhat implausible now. If the North has been trying to pressure the US then it must have learnt by now that this is not going to work. BDA has not gone away.
It is a safe assessment that whether they are working on a genuine weapon program or merely attempting to generate political pressure they will probably need to test again.
US and Western nations will condemn it and bluster about ‘strong measures’.
Japan will condemn it and use the test as proof that they live in a bad neighbourhood; but keep their eye on China.
China will be perplexed but will probably maintain its current line, where it keeps the world guessing about what it actually has done to ‘punish’ KJI’s regime. China needs stability in the DPRK, especially before the Beijing Olympics. That stability currently means tolerating KJI but China may decide one day that KJI causes instability and then China may act behind the scenes. (If current stories are to be believed, KJI plans to be around for a lot longer.)
More sanctions? There does not seem to be much being done now. China may be doing more in private than is clear in news reports but that is unknown. The ROK still supports Geumgang and Kaesong, although to be fair they are not covered by the recent UNSCR 1718 and each country is allowed to decide its own list of luxury goods. The ROK has probably defined Geumgang andKaesong out of its list. Nothing has worked to stop North Korea acquiring WMD so far.
Is the military option the only option now? The combined civilian populations of North East Asia who will be affected by the war probably say no. A leader would have to be convinced that he is fighting a war now to stave off a war in the future which will be worse because KJI will then have nuclear tipped ICBMs. Fortunately, this is just a blog and so the question can stand without an answer.
The bottom line is there probably will be another test sometime this year and the international community still has not found a way to stop KJI’s acquisition of WMD.