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The Costs of North Korea’s Defiance

by Scott A. Snyder
February 12, 2013

A man watches a television report on North Korea's nuclear test at a railway station in Seoul February 12, 2013. North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Tuesday, South Korea's defense ministry said, after seismic activity measuring 4.9 magnitude was registered by the U.S. Geological Survey. The epicentre of the seismic activity, which was only one km below the Earth's surface, was close to the North's known nuclear test site. (Kim Hong-ji/courtesy Reuters)


The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) made good on a January 24, 2013, pledge by the National Defense Commission to conduct a nuclear test “of higher level” on February 12, 2013. The statement, which also pledged launches of “a variety of satellites and long-range rockets,” was North Korea’s defiant response to passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2087, which condemned North Korea’s December 12, 2012 launch of a satellite in violation of previous UN Security Council resolutions 1695, 1718, and 1874.

Initial confirmation of North Korea’s third nuclear test came when international monitors detected an “unusual seismic event” registering 4.9 on the Richter scale at 11:58 a.m. in Korea. The Korea Central News Agency stated that it used a “miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously.” The test appears to have been larger than 2006 and 2009 tests reported to have registered 3.9 and 4.5 respectively. The South Korean Ministry of National Defense estimated the yield of the test at between six and seven kilotons. It remains to be determined whether North Korea’s test utilized uranium or plutonium, or whether technical data from the test will yield additional information regarding the current scale and development of the North’s nuclear program.

The international community greeted the test with widespread condemnation. South Korea and Japan convened emergency meetings of top national security officials, China’s foreign minister stated that China is “strongly and resolutely opposed” to North Korea’s test, and the White House described it as “a highly provocative act . . . that warrants further swift and credible action by the international community.” The UN Security Council convened an emergency session hours after the test to fashion an international response.

North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests provide an early challenge to new leaderships in Seoul and Beijing and follow a pattern similar to the one surrounding North Korean 2009 tests. The 2009 tests were designed to take advantage of political leadership transitions and provided an early political test to the Obama administration. But the cycle of North Korean tests and international sanctions has clearly not succeeded in altering the trajectory of North Korea’s nuclear program. The UN Security Council now faces the task of trying to punish North Korea for its defiance of prior resolutions while fashioning a response that prevents North Korea from moving closer to having a capacity to mount a nuclear weapon on a missile.

Following Kim Jong-il’s death slightly over a year ago, North Korea under Kim Jong-un appears to have redoubled its determination and the stridency of its defiance of international efforts to curb North Korean efforts to pursue what it refers to as its “nuclear deterrent” against U.S. “hostile policy.” Kim Jong-un convened highly public meetings of political and military bodies in the days prior to the test that signaled his direct leadership decision to pursue a nuclear test.

Kim Jong-un’s modeling of his leadership style and image after that of his grandfather Kim Il-sung has enabled him to adopt a soft and personable domestic image, but his grandfather’s militancy and appetite for provocation are now becoming part of Kim Jong-un’s international image. For Kim Il-sung, such a path exploited international mistrust and resulted in war. North Korea’s current militancy dangerously limits political space for diplomacy and raises the cost and risks of further confrontation, but it also provides an incentive for enhanced Sino-U.S. cooperation and illustrates the need for international cooperation to limit the incalculable costs that would result if North Korea stays on its current course.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by S. Mahmud Ali

    As Dr Snyder points out, the costs of allowing North Korea to proceed on its present course are incalculable. However, his commentary is less specific, as indeed are those by other specialists who, too, have commented on this since the most recent test, as to what South Korea, Japan, China, the USA, indeed anyone, can do to change Pyongyang’s strategic trajectory.

    Dr Snyder and others have acknowledged that US-led international action represented by a sanctions-engagement- joint military drills around the DPRK’s periphery- cycle has produced little perceptible change in North Korean behaviour. The past six decades bear testimony to the inefficacy of the policies pursued by Pyongyang’s many critics. Its only alleged ally, China, too, has been expressing its resentment of the virtual impotence into which Pyongyang has painted Beijing.

    In short, it is now clear that repeated UNSC sanctions, robust displays of muscular military posturing, and a growing palimpsest of sanctions have not deterred DPRK action and continuing along that failed course is unlikely to elicit any dramatic shift in the DPRK elite’s behaviour. Kim Jong-un may be the most powerful of DPRK’s leaders, but he must operate within a system and a culture which, clearly, do not take kindly to perennial hostility from some of the world’s strongest powers.

    After almost six decades since the Armistice, it is probably time to recognise that those who detest the DPRK have not managed to either change it or constrain it with the policies they have pursued. One possible reason may be that they are going about it in a manner least likely to generate their preferred outcomes. Their words and deeds have deepened, not alleviated, DPRK’s elite insecurities. Their muscular vigour has forced that elite into an an even deeper bunker. Pyongyang is building a strategic safety net with a nuclear deterrent which, the DPRK’s rulers must hope, will prevent the fate of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and, increasingly probably, Bashar al-Assad, from befalling the Kim family and its substantial entourage of acolytes.

    If this line of reasoning has any validity, then the system-managers among the UNSC P-5 would be hard pressed to absolve themselves of the responsibility of creating at least some of the motivations driving the DPRK’s nuclear- and ballistic missile programmes. Only an acknowledgement of that responsibility, and a recognition of the consistent failure of past policy, can begin to show the way, if there is one, to mitigating the threats generated by a nuclear-armed North Korea.

    Hard-nosed coercive diplomacy and strategic coercion have not worked, and are unlikely to do so in the future.

  • Posted by fozzie fosgood

    If China withdrew ALL funding, only then will we see a change of heart.hen : when ALL of the people are starving (not just the people who are employed by the government). It is China who bankrolling this dangerous, corrupt leader.

  • Posted by CharlieSeattle

    Dear Hillary, why don’t we make North Korea, China’s problem to solve?

    Revoke MFN trade status with China until they disarm North Korea and jail dear leader.

    China is an unfair trading partner that has manipulated its currency for the last 20 years. MFN created the trade deficit that threatens to bankrupt our nation.

    The Korean war ended in TRUCE after President Truman failed to back up MacArthur and nuke China. All parties are still technically at war. We in effect made China and North Korea what they are today. We fought China on the ground and Russian pilots in the air. That sorta redefines it as a mini WWIII historically now doesn’t it?

    Our country did not trade with Nazi Germany and Japan while we were at war. Ironic that it’s happening with China during the “TRUCE”, yes?

    Yet our patriotic corporations fall all over themselves to use China’s MFN status bestowed by our Government to the detriment of our country and our children’s future.

    Clinton’s administration worked to bring China into the newly created World Trade Organization and to put unconditional MFN treatment for China on a permanent basis. This culminated in an agreement of 15 November 1999 to make China a full member of the WTO.

    Dear Hillary, Kill Bill’s error.

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