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North Korea’s Fourth Nuclear Test: How to Respond?

by Scott A. Snyder
January 6, 2016

Ko Yun-hwa (L), Administrator of Korea Meteorological Administration, points at where seismic waves observed in South Korea came from, during a media briefing at Korea Meteorological Administration in Seoul, South Korea, January 6, 2016. (Courtesy REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)


North Korea announced that it has conducted its fourth nuclear test on January 6, 2016, following reports of a 5.1 magnitude artificial earthquake near the site of North Korea’s past nuclear tests. Regardless of whether or not the North’s claims to have conducted a test of a “hydrogen bomb” are true, the test occurs in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning North Korea for conducting three previous tests and despite repeated warnings by the leaders of the United States, South Korea, and China not to do so. South Korea’s foreign minister stated in April of 2014 that North Korea’s fourth nuclear test would be a “game changer,” but this will only be the case if the United States, South Korea, and China can lead a response that imposes real costs on Pyongyang.

Moreover, the test comes two weeks following an apparent North Korean success in launching a potentially nuclear-capable missile from a submarine. By pursuing such a course of action, Kim Jong-un has issued a challenge to the international community and has underscored the magnitude of the danger posed by North Korea’s increasing nuclear and missile capabilities despite past UN Security Council resolutions. Therefore, North Korea’s fourth nuclear test could become a true test of the collective will of the global community to deal with a common security challenge.

However, the complex challenge facing the United States and the global community is how to impose costs on the reclusive state without opening a new front in a seeming contagion of global hot spots and instability. Escalation of a crisis with North Korea would likely open a Pandora’s Box of difficult geopolitical, humanitarian, and potentially military challenges. Yet, efforts to defer these challenges will only guarantee that the problems on the Korean peninsula will grow more complex and costly in the future.

One wrinkle in the North Korean announcement is the seemingly desperate reach for prestige represented by the claim that the country had mastered the technology necessary to detonate a hydrogen bomb. Such a claim in the absence of conclusive corroborating evidence conveys desperation and weakness from a regime that has increasingly stood on claims to North Korea’s nuclear status as a source of domestic legitimacy. North Korea’s latest test suggests evidence of weakness rather than strength, but such a conclusion could also complicate an effective response, given that the main differences among North Korea’s neighbors have to do with the risks of inducing North Korean instability despite unity in opposition to North Korea’s nuclear development.

Another complication is that North Korea’s fourth nuclear test may actually be an unintended consequence of an unprecedented convergence of opposition among China, the United States, and South Korea to North Korea’s nuclear development. The main cause of simultaneous failures of North Korean diplomatic outreaches to South Korea and China in mid-December was Seoul and Beijing’s opposition to Pyongyang’s continued nuclear development: Kim Jong-un may have ordered the fourth nuclear test as an expression of frustration. Now that Kim has shown his pique, he has likely made it even more difficult to escape increasing international opposition to North Korea’s nuclear development.

The United States, South Korea, and China have a vested interest in imposing a tangible cost on North Korea beyond rhetoric for its act of nuclear defiance, but the task of working together to agree on and impose such a cost is the true test of whether North Korea’s fourth nuclear test is truly a “game changer.”

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Liars N. Fools

    We will likely go through the usual steps of UNSC resolutions and some “enhanced” sanctions while we push for more deterrence and higher alert status. We will also likely go to our favorite trilateral coordination with Korea and Japan (despite the lack of muscle by the Japanese).

    That is the wrong trilateral. Scott Snider is correct in identifying the South, the Chinese, and ourselves as the main actors, and it is time to contemplate a trilateral strategic deal among the ROK, China, and us to undercut the regime in earnest. This will necessitate a grand strategic bargain to support the ROK as in charge of the whole peninsula and putting into place guarantees so that the Chinese (and the South) do not confront a humanitarian crisis and that China not confront potentially hostile American forces close its border.

    The discussion about whether the device was thermo-nuclear or merely atomic is actually besides the point. The game changer is that neither the “friendly” constraint by China nor the deterrence/preparedness stance by the ROK and us (with Japan in tow) are working let alone “international condemnation” — that favorite diplomatic buzzword.

    Park Geun-hye has been right to pursue a trilateral U.S.-China-ROK mechanism. Her initial intent was to push for an effective negotiation. We have been cool to the idea because we are not friendly towards Beijing and because we did not want to “offend” the rather strategically weak Japanese. Now is the time to push the trilateral in a strategic coercive direction.

  • Posted by D Coleman

    There seems to be a possibility in this case that the US will launch strikes to degrade North Korea’s nuclear capability. There is a sizeable strategic presence of US naval forces within striking distance of North Korea’s nuclear weapons infrastructure. Cruise missiles launched from submarines or surface ships in the Sea of Japan could easily strike North Korea’s nuclear production and development facilities.

    US intelligence services will need to verify the claim that North Korea has an H bomb but it seems unlikely given the seismographic data which is currently available that is consistent with a standard nuclear test.

  • Posted by David Rice

    Because an “A” bomb is used as a detonator for an “H” bomb, North Korea may well have detonated an “H” bomb, only it didn’t really go off as intended, but we all know that they would still make the claim for domestic purposes. That being said, the nuclear program may be progressing for actual military purposes, and practice makes perfect; the program and tests may not be just for propaganda. Scott Snyder, the writer of this article asks the question: “How to Respond?” If the world grows used to the idea that everything North Korea does, is just for show, or to get attention, or for domestic consumption, they will grow complacent, so my answer to Snyder’s question is that the South Koreans become less complacent, and guard against complacency with special effort. We have seen in recent years that a small number of dedicated, conventionally armed extremists are capable of taking over a “place,” such as a hotel and then holding the people there hostages; the entire South Korean half of the peninsula could be thought of as a giant “hotel” for the purposes of my point (ISIS took a pretty big “place” over quickly and by surprise!). If the North Koreans stunned the South Koreans by nuking Seoul, Busan, and other targets, they could then, in the chaos, use their vast chemical attack capability, followed by paratroops; the entire surviving South Korean population would be unarmed hostages; who could respond to that. So, perhaps the South Koreans should take that possibility seriously, and start a program of home-armed Reservists similar to the Swiss; each Reservist maintains an individual weapon, ammunition, field gear, and gas mask in a gun-safe at his or her residence as a safeguard against surprise attack (with gas masks for the entire family–similar to Brits during the Blitz). It has been a while sense I traveled the peninsula, so I don’t know the level of seriousness that people have of the threat, but this atomic bomb test does not indicate that things are getting better with age. So, to sum up, I see three “responses:” maintain the status-quo, inflicting diplomatic “costs” hoping for the best; implement a “real”sense of urgency within South Korea (with real preparations as I suggest), or disarm North Korea, and end the threat altogether (difficult, but one option however).

  • Posted by David Rice

    “” 폭탄 “H” 폭탄을 뇌관으로 사용 됩니다, 때문에 북한 “H” 폭탄 폭발 해야 잘 수 있습니다, 그것만 하지 정말가 의도 한 대로 하지만 우리 모두 알고 있는 그들은 여전히 국내 목적에 대 한 클레임을 만들 것입니다. 그 말했다 하 고, 수 핵 프로그램 실제 군사 목적을 위해 진행 될 합니다 및 연습이 완벽을 만들지. 프로그램 및 테스트 선전을 위해 않을 수 있습니다. 스콧 스나이더,이 글의 작가 질문을 묻는다: “응답 하는 방법?” 세계 성장 북한은, 쇼를 위한 인지, 관심을 얻기 위해 아이디어를 사용 하거나 국내 소비를 위해 그들은 성장할 것입니다 만족, 스나이더의 질문에 내 대답은 그래서 경우 한국인 덜 만족 되 고 특별 한 노력으로 만족을 방지. 우리 본 최근 몇 년 동안에서 전용, 통상 무장 극단 주의자 들의 작은 수는 호텔 같은 “장소”를 인계 하 고 다음 사람을 들고 거기 인질; 반도의 전체 남쪽 절반 (이시스 했다 꽤 큰 “장소” 신속 하 고 놀라운!) 나의 목적에 대 한 거 대 한 “호텔”로 생각 될 수 있는. 북한 서울, 부산, 그리고 다른 목표를 누 킹 하 여 한국인을 기 절, 그들은 수, 혼란, 그들의 광대 한 화학 공격 기능, paratroops; 다음 사용에 전체 살아남은 대한민국 인구 비무장된 인질; 될 것 이다 누가 그에 응답할 수 있습니다. 그래서, 아마도 한국인 해야 심각 그 가능성, 그리고 스위스; 비슷한 가정 무장 예비군의 프로그램을 시작 각 예비군 유지 개별 무기, 탄약, 필드 장비, 기습 공격에 대하여 보호로 그의 혹은 그녀의 저택에서 총 안전 (가족-유사한 영국인 전격 기습 동안에 전체에 대 한 가스 마스크)와 가스 마스크 합니다. 그것은 잠시 왔다 감각 그래서 난 사람들을 위협, 심각 수준 몰라, 반도 여행 하지만 원자 폭탄 시험이 아닙니다 것 들 나이 좋아지고 있다. 그래서, 요약, 내가 볼 3 “응답:” 외교 “비용” 최고;에 대 한 기대를 입힌 상태 그대로 유지 하기 그러나 한국 내에서 긴급의 “진짜” 감각을 구현 (실제 준비와 내가 제안), 또는 북한, 및 위협 전부 끝 (어려운, 하지만 하나 옵션).

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