Will North Korea Attempt a Nuclear Test?

April 14th, 2012

By Dan Miller

It seems rather likely, soon, although not for the reasons commonly suggested.

Motivations for a nuclear test

It has been widely speculated that a North Korean nuclear test will follow the embarrassing spectacle of its expensive ($850 million) Friday the 13th long range missile debacle.  According to this article from Bloomberg,

Kim Jong Un suffered a public humiliation as North Korea’s third-generation leader unlike any his father or grandfather faced after the totalitarian state admitted a long-range rocket failed shortly after liftoff. …

Its failure may raise questions of his hereditary hold on power as he deals with the country’s impoverished economy and international condemnation of its nuclear program.

“It’s going to be destructive in North Korea,” said Bruce W. Bennett, a senior defense analyst at Rand Corp. who is visiting Seoul. “They’re going to look at this as the failure of a young guy who hasn’t shown his mettle yet. We really don’t know the strength of his grip yet.” (Emphasis added.)

According to “North Korea expert Marcus Noland, deputy director and senior fellow of the Peterson Institute for International Economics,”

“Having had this thing fail so dramatically and so publicly I almost think the probability [of a nuclear test] will be 100 percent,” Noland said, of such a move. “They have to do something now to regain their domestic and international credibility.” (Emphasis on “domestic” added.)

Despite international condemnation of the missile launch, Russia and China opposed the imposition of new sanctions and “the United Nations Security Council deplored the launch but stopped short of imposing new penalties in response” on April 13th. It is possible that the missile failure may have been seen as an excuse not to attempt “robust” measures.  So might a nuclear test failure.

I consider a scenario based on domestic humiliation unlikely and agree with this observation: “deciphering the murky, ambiguous statements put out by North Korea is more a black magic art than science.” Nevertheless, here goes.

According to this article from a Japanese research center focused on “all the … intriguing and seedy aspects that keep the country running,”

No Change in UN Sanctions = Symbolic Victory 

“If there are no sanctions, North Korea will have won.” Shigemura said.

If no sanctions are actually issued, “there would be a feeling within the North Korean leadership that it is okay to go forward with such actions as nuclear tests, and therefore there will be a feeling of victory among them,” he added. …

The likelihood of North Korea conducting another nuclear test is quite high, according to many experts. What we would see in the future, is that the UN will not issue new sanctions but strengthen the present sanctions. As a result of these movements, North Korea will do anything possible to live by their third Confucian value, which is “never to bend to a foreign power.” In order to demonstrate their strength, “they will have to do something that would be as dramatic as a nuclear test.” This is the logic of the North Korean military leadership. Both the political leadership and the military leadership believe very strongly that as long as this country possesses the nuclear power, their country will never collapse.

That seems to make sense. Although I doubt that speculations based on the humiliation of Kim Jong-un and a concomitant North Korean need to demonstrate domestically that it can do something right are well grounded, I nevertheless think that North Korea will soon attempt, or at least fake, a nuclear test.

North Korea’s announcement of a missile failure

Why did North Korea announce, four hours after the fact, that its missile launch had been a colossal failure?  Actually, it didn’t go that far and thought seems to have been given to deciding how much to say. In state television broadcast possibly but unlikely seen by 23 million people (the estimated population for 2012 is 24,589,122) it was said that

The Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite was fired from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri along the west coast at 7:38 a.m., but failed to reach orbit, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

“Scientists, technicians and experts are now looking into the cause of the failure,” KCNA said.

It appears to have been left unsaid that the missile disintegrated soon after launch and that its pieces fell into the sea.  The domestic audience, consisting principally of undereducated, underfed, underprivileged and over-controlled peasants lacking news beyond that which the regime provides, may well have been provided pre-launch news about this: the director of North Korea’s mission control center near Pyongyang had stated,

The launch of the satellite this time will be successful because Comrade Kim Jong-Un is guiding us through the launch step by step, and gives us personal guidance.”

After that, why tell them that the missile test was a colossal failure and thereby suggest that their new and glorious leader is less than omnipotent and omniscient?

Preparations for a nuclear weapons test

North Korea has been preparing for its next underground nuclear test for a long time and just about everything necessary had been done before the failed missile test.

A report written by intelligence officials and shared Monday with The Associated Press says recent satellite photos show piles of dirt near the newly excavated tunnel’s entrance.

The report says the excavation at the North’s northeast Punggye-ri site is in its final stages. Experts say dirt is needed to fill up underground tunnels before a nuclear test. …

Ominously, both of North Korea’s previous nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, have come on the heels of rocket launches which were condemned by the international community.

The missile test was timed to coincide with the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Eternal President Kim Il-sung on April 15th and a real (or faked) nuclear test probably has been as well.  Can the regency in charge of the government, and therefore of Kim Jong-un, afford another colossal screw-up? If a nuclear test becomes well known domestically as a failure, there may be substantial problems. If it becomes known only internationally to have been a failure, any resulting problems seem unlikely to be very serious.

The pre- and post-failure status of Kim Jong-un

Since well before his succession, Kim Jong-un had been kept busy providing well publicized personal field guidance in many diverse fields.

Kim Jong-unLike father, like son. Since the recent death of Kim Jong Il, North Korean state-run media has been releasing a series of images of the “Great Successor,” Kim Jong Un, visiting schools, factories, and military facilities. These visits, which were frequently publicized by his father and his grandfather Kim Il Sung, are called “field guidance” trips — opportunities for the supreme leader to give on-the-spot advice. For decades, the North Korean myth-making machine endowed Kim Jong Il with amazing wisdom, prowess, and intelligence, and it continues that tradition now with his son, touting him as a marksman, poet, economic genius, and wise military strategist.

Kim Jong-un’s claimed guidance for the missile launch was likely publicized as well — until the missile fell apart shortly after launch.

The 4th Conference of the Workers’ Party of Korea was held on Friday the 13th, shortly after the failed missile launch.  On that day, according to Rodong Sinmun, the North Korean daily newspaper,

An endlessly bright future is being unfolded on the road ahead of great Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s Korea. …

The dear respected Kim Jong Un is the sun of life and victorious banner of Songun Korea held up by the entire party members, officers and men of the Korean People’s Army and people with their hearts.

The main spirit of the recent party conference is to hold the dear respected Kim Jong Un in high esteem as the center of unity and leadership to accomplish the Juche revolution and the building of a thriving nation pioneered by President Kim Il Sung and advanced by leader Kim Jong Il. …

The outstanding and seasoned leadership of Kim Jong Un is the lifeline of our party and revolution and of the building of a thriving nation.

The following day, the 14th, the Rodong Sinmun elaborated a bit on “publicly” “humiliated” Kim Jong-un’s outstanding accomplishments:

The session solemnly declared at home and abroad that Kim Jong Un was elected as first chairman of the NDC of the DPRK in reflection of the unanimous desire of servicepersons and people of the country. Kim Jong Un, a great statesman of literary and military accomplishments, who is possessed of outstanding wisdom, distinguished leadership ability, matchless pluck and noble revolutionary comradeship, is advancing the revolutionary cause of Juche pioneered by President Kim Il Sung and led by Kim Jong Il along the path of victory with his sweeping revolutionary practice.

The participants burst into rousing cheers of “Hurrah!” with feelings of strong yearning and loyalty, extending highest glory and warmest congratulations to him.

Kim Jong-un’s “outstanding” and “seasoned” leadership and his personal guidance in all important matters, taken in conjunction with the North Korean “modified limited hang out” concerning the failure of the missile to reach orbit, may well have suggested to the North Korean masses that the missile launch was partially or even mainly successful. The launch itself does seem to have been successful; the missile did not blow up on the launch pad and gained altitude.

In Pyongyang, where the elite and their children live in relative comfort and even have some internet access, perceptions are probably a bit different.

In downtown Pyongyang, university student Kim Kwang Jin was optimistic despite Friday’s failure.

“I’m not too disappointed. There was always the chance of failure,” he said. “Other nations — including China and Russia — have had failures while building their space programs so why wouldn’t we? I hope that in the future, we’re able to build a better satellite.”

It seems unlikely that a university student in Pyongyang is typical of the masses or that many might say anything much different than what Kim Kwang-jin said.  No public opinion polls are likely to have been taken on the point and the North Korean media are unlikely to suggest any notion that the launch was an unmitigated and costly disaster.

Fake it until you make it.  If you don’t make it, keep on faking it.

In the circumstances of the recent missile launch, it would have been extremely difficult to fake success.  The United States and allied countries have quite sophisticated radar and other means of monitoring missile launches.  In addition, the eyes of the world were on the launch and foreign media had been invited — although only to see the sights well before the launch occurred, not the launch itself. It was promptly known worldwide — except probably by most North Koreans — that the launch had occurred and that the missile had fallen apart within a couple of minutes. It seems very unlikely that North Korea will want, or permit, the eyes of the world to be focused on a nuclear test anytime soon.

Faking a successful underground nuclear test should be much easier than faking a successful missile launch.  Spectators from outside will almost certainly not be present and there will be fewer signs detectable from afar.  To detect such nuclear tests, remote “seismic, infrasound, hydroacoustic, and radionuclide technologies” must be relied upon. They seem to have worked reasonably well following the 2006 North Korean nuclear test.

an expert on radionuclide detection from Sweden … told the conference how well the network performed after North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006. Twelve days after that event the network picked up just a few hundreds of atoms of the noble gas Xenon 133 in Canada.

Although radionuclides were not detected following the test in 2009,

the eminent seismologist Professor Paul Richards from Columbia University implied it did not matter so much…; if one detection set-up sees no nuclear signature, others will. And his personal view is that this was most likely a nuclear test. So was there a deliberate attempt by the North Koreans to contain the explosion? Or was the explosion contained by accident? Some larger yield nuclear explosions can apparently “melt” the rock around them, so less noble gas seeps out. Attempts to explain the lack of a noble gas signal remain educated guesses at the moment.

How much non-nuclear explosive material would be needed to simulate the seismic effects of a low level underground nuclear test similar to the two previous tests?  Probably a manageable quantity.  If the need were felt to do so, and in view of the failure to detect radioactive gas following the test in 2009 such a need might not be felt, how difficult would it be to release appropriate radioactive materials sufficient to provide small new traces for western monitoring stations?

To the extent that domestic public relations efforts are thought to be needed, such tricks would not have to be convincing from a scientific perspective; they probably would not be needed at all. Why not just publicly and massively celebrate the glorious success of the test, under to the wise technical and ideological guidance of “seasoned” leader Kim Jong-un, heir to the throne and the beloved son of Kim Jong-il and grandson of Kim Il-sung?

These factors suggest that if the North Korean regime principally desires a domestic public relations win, it can conduct a nuclear test and, if it fails, fake one. If a real test goes off without a hitch, OK.  If it doesn’t, that’s no big deal because those who want or even need to be fooled can be easily. Ignorance is bliss, or if not bliss at least less deadly than thinking and talking about such things in North Korea.  The few who may not be fooled may not learn of the fakery and in any event they don’t much matter and can be dealt with appropriately.

My guess

My guess is if an apparently successful nuclear test is thought to be desirable domestically, North Korea may attempt the real thing, backed up with something that can be presented to a gullible, uninformed and tightly controlled population as a great success with little more than an announcement and massive public celebrations.  If the rest of the world find the announcement dubious, North Korea might even acknowledge, in strict confidence, that the test failed.  That might be done without substantial fear that word would leak in North Korea because nobody who matters (and therefore might be told) wants civil disturbances, regime chaos or collapse: those would very likely send hordes of fleeing North Koreans to China and to South Korea; they are undesired in both places.  China is apparently having difficulty in feeding her own people, and

Customs data from Beijing revealed that grain imports reached 1.64m tonnes in March, up sixfold from a year earlier and up 50% from the previous month.

Such concerns may well be behind this:

After the rocket’s failure, China, Pyongyang’s closest ally, urged the parties involved to “remain calm and exercise restraint, and not do anything that would harm the peace and stability of the peninsula,” according to a statement posted on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (Emphasis added)

Mass Starvation in North KoreaThose who favor humanitarian assistance for the malnourished children, peasants and others suffering from famine due to drought and other natural disasters might well rationalize that a failed nuclear test, faked as successful for domestic consumption, justifies neither enlightening the North Korean masses to their detriment nor international callousness toward their plight. That recent food shortages probably have far more to do with regime policies than with natural disasters has not previously dissuaded them from pushing for aid.

North and South Korea have been separated for more than sixty years, they have become very different countries economically and culturally, the costs of reunification would be staggering and reunification has become decreasingly popular in South Korea. Keeping North Korea afloat until changes can be made, gradually, may result regardless of whether the contemplated nuclear weapons test goes forward, is successful or is faked.

In the meantime, this seems reasonable if it can be done successfully: how about acting with U.S. allies

to hit the Kim government itself — by tightening economic sanctions aimed at the privileged few at the top of the Kim dynasty’s power structure; by not relenting in that pressure for the mere privilege of talking with North Korea; and by taking new measures to counter the propaganda apparatus with which the government controls the long-suffering North Korean people.

Importation of luxury goods — mainly from China — has surged in recent years despite sanctions imposed following the 2006 nuclear test and strengthened following the 2009 test. Further limiting such importation shouldn’t be terribly difficult if China were to go along; unless it finds good reasons to do so in its own self interest, it probably won’t. Improved propaganda measures could also be useful to counter North Korea’s masterful propaganda machine. Although more difficult than further sanctions undertaken with Chinese cooperation, better propaganda efforts might help to loosen, gradually, the regime’s grip on the North Korean people. They might well result in further North Korean provocations directed at South Korea, but if South Korea is willing, they might be worth that risk.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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3 Responses to “Will North Korea Attempt a Nuclear Test?”

  1. larry |

    Intel Dan
    At first I thought what hell Dan, are you in a rut or what? Turns out to be a very good piece.
    I often wonder if our country isn’t headed in the same direction?

  2. Dan Miller |

    Thanks, Larry

    I am in a bit of a rut. North Korea interests me and I’ve been keeping up with it since I was last in South Korea more than forty years ago. Much of the stuff published these days offers few insights into what either country is about and it’s a fertile field for writing more or less original stuff.

  3. Tom Carter |

    The North Korea articles are excellent. All I hear on the news are quick pieces that just skim the surface. Your articles, taken together, provide more and better detail than I’ve read elsewhere — in addition to some pretty good satire now and then!

    Beyond that, the articles are giving me nightmares….

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