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Since early 2022, North Korea has been gearing up for its seventh nuclear test. It’s likely to be held at the Punggye-ri test site, the mountainside location used for all six previous tests. A seventh test would be another confrontational step in North Korea’s much-debated, highly controversial, and bizarrely self-promoted nuclear program. North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 and has been ruthlessly pursuing a successful nuclear weapons programme since then – and likely even before – much to the detriment of the state elsewhere in economic stability, international relations and at immense humanitarian cost.
Seventh time is a charm?
A seventh nuclear test at Punggye-ri is important for three reasons. Firstly, it will be the first since the site was partially decommissioned (at least superficially) during a brief thawing of the rollercoaster US-NK relationship under the Trump administration1 that resulted in a summit between the two leaders. A seventh test will signal a complete reversal of any intent during the 2018 summit to commit to diplomacy and restrain. The US has always committed to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation (CVID) of North Korea and has so far delivered on its promise for complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula by removing tactical warheads from South Korea in 1994.2 A seventh test will set the tone for the next inevitable round of diplomacy, and as it is likely to be the highest yield so far, will set a dour one.
Significant policy and rhetoric change
It will also be the first since North Korea announced a change to its nuclear weapons policy.3 Previously, it was declared that they would never conduct a first strike against a non-nuclear state, and then, the conditions for use were comparatively dovish compared to the current rhetoric coming from Pyongyang. In September 2022 at the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Jong-un significantly broadened these criteria and lowered the bar for nuclear policy and first use:
“(1) when a nuclear or other weapon of mass destruction attack has been carried out or is imminent, (2) when a nuclear or nonnuclear strike on the leadership and national nuclear force command body has been carried out or is imminent, (3) when a lethal military attack on important strategic targets of the state has been carried out or is imminent, (4) when it is operationally unavoidable to prevent the expansion of a war and seize the initiative in times of contingencies, and (5) when a situation that causes a catastrophic crisis to the existence of the state and the safety of the people.”
In addition to being a concrete, vocal change in nuclear policy, the five stated conditions of use are increasingly vague and broad. This is not the policy that supports a purely defensive capability meant to secure some form of deterrence against South Korea and the West – against whom the North Korean military would almost certainly lose in a conventional conflict. These conditions are deliberately provocative and achieve one of the pillars of deterrence for the regime: a statement of intent under which a state wishes to constrain or deter an adversary, and does so loudly and belligerently.
Moreover, such conditions as (2) begin by covering those circumstances against which a conventional strike against ‘the leadership’ is imminent – a loose criteria at best – through to (3), (4) and (5) which in with increasing opaqueness cover “threats to important strategic sites” to “seizing the initiative” and “catastrophic crisis that threatens the safety of the people.
Thirdly, is the impact for regional actors namely South Korea and Japan; and the impact on the intrinsic tolerance of the extended deterrence of US nuclear protection. In their 2022 Defence Review, Japan has already signalled its intent to regenerate its defence forces and reinvest in alliances and defence pacts; emphasising the continued instability in the region; threats from North Korea included and much at the fore.4
Recently, South Korean President, Yoon Suk Yeol appeared to deliver an ultimatum to North Korea (and the United States) that much more rattling and escalation from Pyongyang would force South Korea to either proliferate nuclear weapons themselves, or approach the United States to redeploy warheads to the country as a show of force, and credible forward deployed deterrent.5 He soon appeared to backtrack his comments and reaffirm his “confidence in the extended deterrence of the United States”6 but the exasperation is clear as is the strategic communication. Confidence in a Western nuclear umbrella is fine and well but it does little to reassure the South Korean population7 and is evidently not enough to reassure the political leadership of national security, and as two decades of in-your-face proliferation has shown has done even less to deter Pyongyang.
A seventh test is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when. Inside the country, it will surely be used to strengthen regional deterrence for the regime, and bolster the military first “Songun” (military first) mantra and more importantly as a distraction from a still rife C-19 pandemic inside the country.
Options for western allies are, as always, already limited. Options for military escalation are all poor and prompts a horizontal escalation that China and the United States would rather avoid. Soft power levels are also weak in the uncomfortable space between continually reassuring the South and containing the North; all against a regime with the least diplomatic engagement, and highest provocations since the 1990s.8
The chance to deter North Korean nuclear proliferation has passed (indeed long ago) and the challenge of how to grapple with a bona-fide nuclear North Korea is now as present as ever. Remilitarisation in Japan and bellicose messaging from South Korea suggest a tilt towards less stability in the region, a lack of patience with the United States’ nuclear umbrella, and a reluctant frustration of accepting that Pyongyang has the freedom of manoeuvres to exert these kinds of strategic dilemmas on the West (again).
Cover photo: North Korea’s ballistic missile by Stefan Krasowski
Chris E is a British Army officer with experience in electronic warfare and intelligence across regimental and staff appointments. He currently works in cybersecurity and information assurance and is an interested reader of military history and international relations, new and old.
- CSIS (2018). Preparations Before Scheduled Dismantlement of Nuclear Test Site. Beyond Parallel. Center for Strategic and International Studies. Available from https://beyondparallel.csis.org/postponement-punggye-ri-minimal-changes-scheduled-dismantlement-nuclear-test-site/
- NYT, (1991). US decides to withdraw A-Weapons from S. Korea. New York Times. Available from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1991/10/19/us-decides-to-withdraw-a-weapons-from-s-korea/3759ee3f-e9bf-4944-bfdf-2f9ea727b546/
- CSIS, (2022). North Korea States It Will Never Give Up Nuclear Weapons. Center for Strategic and International Studies. Available from https://www.csis.org/analysis/north-korea-states-it-will-never-give-nuclear-weapons
- Japanese MOD, (2022). Defense of Japan 2022. Available from https://www.mod.go.jp/en/publ/w_paper/wp2022/DOJ2022_Digest_EN.pdf
- NYT, (2023). In a First, South Korea Declares Nuclear Weapons a Policy Option. New York Times. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/12/world/asia/south-korea-nuclear-weapons.html
- WSJ, (2023). South Korean leader dials back comments on developing nuclear weapons Wall Street Journal. Available from https://www.wsj.com/articles/south-korea-leader-dials-back-comments-on-developing-nuclear-weapons-11674154870
- Global Affairs, (2022). Thinking Nuclear: South Korean Attitudes on Nuclear Weapons. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Available from https://globalaffairs.org/research/public-opinion-survey/thinking-nuclear-south-korean-attitudes-nuclear-weapons
- CSIS, (2022). 25 Years of Negotiations and Provocations: North Korea and the United States. Beyond Parallel. Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://beyondparallel.csis.org/25-years-of-negotiations-provocations/