On the Spot report by Ioana Petculescu, Guest Expert of DAVA | Strategic Analysis
In an ever growing escalation of the tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the regime of Kim Jong-Un has performed a new nuclear test on Sunday, the sixth in a row to date and by far the most powerful.
As events are developing, little is known for now about the exact type of the weapon. Pyongyang’s mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), cited by the South Korean Yonhap News Agency, reported that an “H-bomb test was carried out to examine and confirm the accuracy and credibility of the power control technology, and internal structural design newly introduced into manufacturing the H-bomb to be placed as the payload of the ICBM.” Hours before the tests, pictures of Kim Jong-Un were released in which he was reportedly inspecting a miniaturized model of the new bomb.
Yet, experts remain skeptical of the real nature of the test, despite the unprecedented yield of the detonation, which produced an artificial 6.3-magnitude earthquake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It remains unclear if North Korea really has a thermonuclear bomb or if this was just a “boosted” atomic bomb, similar to the one tested back in January 2016. Then, like now, the Hermit Kingdom had bragged about successfully detonating a hydrogen bomb, but scientists had argued that the seismic signature of the event suggested too small a yield to come from a thermonuclear device. It is equally unlikely that North Korea would already be capable effectively to weaponize its nuclear arsenal, but this is just a matter of time in light of the accelerated pace of the country’s long-range ballistic missile program.
Whatever the nature of this latest test, North Korea’s technological ambitions clearly demonstrate, if that was not already obvious, that the regime is adamant in pursuing its nuclear military program and will not give in to international pressure. Kim Yong-Un showed once more that he was unimpressed by President Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” threats, let alone by sanctions, be they adopted unanimously at the United Nations Security Council. Still, more than an act of defiance against “imperialist America,” Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test appears as a slap in China’s face.
Close to Achieving Effective Deterrence against the United States
Yesterday’s nuclear test came as a surprise, even though its preparation had been detected by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) a few days ago. With it, North Korea’s “arduous march” towards acquiring a nuclear capability able to deter its adversaries, first and foremost the United States, is getting closer to an end.
Tipped on an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), such as the recently tested Hwasong-12 (KN-17), Pyongyang’s arsenal would pose a threat to critical American assets in the Pacific, notably in Guam. Worse, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) like the Hwasong-14 (KN-20) tested on July 4 would hold the U.S. homeland at risk.
If the alleged leap from an atomic to a thermonuclear weapon is true, this would represent a force multiplier capable of discouraging any attempt by Washington to change the regime. Whereas a nuclear fission A-bomb would kill hundreds of thousands of people, a nuclear fusion H-bomb a thousand times more powerful would wipe out entire cities. In terms of extended deterrence, the question as to whether one would risk Los Angeles or Anchorage for Seoul or Tokyo becomes a real issue. And this is exactly the effect North Korea is looking for in geostrategic terms.
A New, Albeit Failed, Attempt to Break Allies Apart
With each nuclear and missile test, North Korea hopes not just to advance and showcase its military capabilities and, consequently, to obtain leverage in its relation with its perceived enemies. Another major objective is to create fractures within the alliance between the United States, South Korea and Japan.
The latest tests are in this respect the perfect illustration. The highly provocative launch of the IRBM Hwasong-12 missile over the Japanese island of Hokkaido on August 28 was a carefully staged maneuver primarily meant to signal a threat to Guam without directly targeting U.S. troops. On that occasion, however, North Korea also tried to instill doubt in the mind of American allies by showing that its aggressive move triggered no response from Washington, apart from the usual forceful rhetoric and tweets. Yet, it is notable that the response, or rather lack thereof, was, if not concerted with Tokyo, at least the expression of an unambiguous meeting of the minds.
While “North American Aerospace Defense Command determined the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America” and, therefore, the United States made no attempt to intercept the missile, exactly the same reasoning was followed by the Japanese military, which did not try to shoot down the missile either, because they did not detect a threat to Japanese territory. Of course, the question remains what would have happened had the missile represented a threat to Japan, but Kim does not seem to want to go down the route of genuine aggression, with incalculable risks for his regime’s survival. China has already signaled its decision to remain neutral in case of a North Korean first strike, which may explain Pyongyang’s relative restraint.
Back to the point, North Korea similarly tried to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea, only to find out that the historic alliance between Washington and Seoul was enduring against all odds. The previously scheduled Ulchi-Freedom Guardian military exercise went on unabated and included a nuclear war game for the first time.
In response to the July ICBM test, President Moon even reversed his initial decision to suspend the controversial deployment of the THAAD missile defense system, which received today conditional approval from South Korea’s Ministry of the Environment pending the completion of an environmental impact assessment. Following the surprise nuclear test, the remaining four launchers are likely to be deployed at Seongju, in North Gyeongsang province, as early as this week, much to China’s dismay.
Testing China’s Patience
By detonating a nuclear bomb for the sixth time on Sunday, North Korea’s isolated regime did not just test a weapon. It also tested China’s patience. The timing was particularly embarrassing, if not insulting, for President Xi Jinping as the test took place a day before the opening of the BRICS leaders’ summit in Xiamen and roughly a month before the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress, a sensitive time for Chinese leaders.
Yet, this timing was no accident. Kim Yong-Un’s apparent intention was to send a strong message to President Xi that China’s support for sanctions against Pyongyang was counterproductive and could potentially lead to a war on the Korean Peninsula. The North Korean young leader is all too aware of Beijing’s fear of a military crisis, which could spur a vague of refugees into China and might ultimately be the end of a somewhat friendly regime and the emergence of a unified, pro-American Korea at Chinese borders. China is, therefore, in a very delicate position.
In order to be able to extend its geopolitical clout in Eurasia, China needs stability. The Road and Belt Initiative may only succeed in a peaceful environment. War is bad for business and the impact of the tensions between North Korea and the United States has already started to impact global markets. The war of words, for now, between Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump is sending shockwaves not just in Asia, but around the world. Unfortunately for China, its repeated calls for a peaceful settlement of the North Korean nuclear program crisis and for renewed negotiations are not going to materialize soon.
Back to the Diplomatic Drawing Board?
Diplomacy remains if not the only, at least the main option. Certainly, this will continue to be coercive diplomacy, mixing ever increasing sanctions with overtures to talks. In the best case scenario, the United States will accept to engage in containment and enhanced deterrence with a nuclear North Korea, within the framework of what is now the policy of “strategic accountability.” But negotiations will not start immediately.
The Trump Administration declared strategy of “peace through strength” requires that the dialogue be initiated on Washington’s terms. Conditions must be ripe for official talks and they are not right now. There lies the danger for China, which will have to cope with Washington’s efforts to create those conditions. Such efforts will probably include new sanctions which will adversely affect Chinese firms and banks as well as the general economic landscape, and more and more U.S. strategic assets, notably missile defense systems, in the Asia-Pacific.
Japan, for example, plans to build two Aegis Ashore sites similar to the one existing in Deveselu, Romania, and to equip them with the most advanced version of the Standard Missile-3 (Block IIA) that the country co-develops with the United States Missile Defense Agency. China, like Russia, opposes such defensive systems that it considers destabilizing. Beijing will, therefore, face many challenges in the current crisis and must carefully navigate the troubled geopolitical waters of the Pacific in a context of rising threats.