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.