Written by Davis Florick
As North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapon programmes continue to advance, the possible escalatory risks are only increasing. How far will North Korea take nuclear weapons testing?
As North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapon programmes continue to advance, the possible escalatory risks are only increasing. Over the last three decades, Pyongyang has used its research and development projects as tools to deter potential aggression against the regime, to elevate its prestige, and to force concessions from its neighbours in the form of aid and other inducements.
In keeping with this strategy, Pyongyang’s testing programmes have shown consistent progression despite a host of United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR). Given these trends, one should consider how extreme North Korea’s tests could become. Could the culminating step in Kim Jong-un’s testing efforts be a test launch of a nuclear-armed missile and subsequent releasing of a reentry vehicle (RV) into open waters?
Proof that North Korea can miniaturize a nuclear weapon and mate a missile body with a RV could fundamentally alter security dynamics.
The possibility of an end-to-end test As Kim Jong-un continues along the trajectory of consistent weapons development, North Korea’s tests are likely to become more inflammatory and provocative. Without constant inflammatory impact, North Korea’s tests would lose their shock value and no longer carry the same political value for Pyongyang.
Senior officials in Pyongyang have historically demonstrated a willingness to violate international normative behavior and risk conflict to achieve its ends, even outside of the nuclear and missile realms. One of the most notable examples of this is the attempted assassination of South Korean president Chun Doo-Hwan in 1983 in Myanmar, during which 21 were killed, including three senior officials, and the alleged involvement of North Korean nationals in the killing of Kim Jong-nam.
Since the end of the Cold War, the regime’s reliance on its missile and nuclear testing for perceived shock value has increased. During Kim Jong-il’s 18-year reign, there were 18 missile and two nuclear tests. Under Kim Jong-un, both the missile and nuclear testing programmes have rapidly accelerated: in five years his government has conducted over 40 missile and 3 nuclear tests – with over 20 missile and two nuclear tests in 2016 alone. The potency of the underground nuclear tests has also increased, from approximately 1 kiloton in 2006 to 10 kilotons in 2016.
Furthermore, while the accuracy of North Korea’s missile systems has improved, a nuclear demonstration does not even require exactitude. Without any advanced warning on targeting, North Korea could simply attempt to de-mate the RV and strive for a nuclear detonation at sea level. Questions over accuracy problems might be overshadowed as Kim Jong-un would have successfully proven his delivery vehicle and RV capabilities can function in unison.
Considering North Korea’s tendency to manipulate facts and the high degree of technical complexity involved in a complete nuclear demonstration, testing each component separately might still be viewed with skepticism internationally. Proving that it can conduct an end-to-end test would erase any doubts from abroad.
Beyond the military utility of possessing a functional delivery vehicle, Kim Jong-un may also see significant political incentives to conduct such a test. If North Korea can prove to the international community that it possesses a complete system capable of delivering nuclear weapons, the decision calculus and strategies of regional actors will change dramatically. Indeed, if Kim Jong-un can present his neighbors with an assured and complete nuclear capability, then he may be able to escalate a possible crisis to a level unacceptable to other regional actors, thereby pushing them to concede ground to North Korea.
What could the international community do?
It would be difficult for Seoul, Tokyo, or Washington to thwart the test. There are significant technical challenges involved in successfully shooting down a North Korean missile launch. For example, a lofted missile test, utilizing a relatively narrow arc, minimizes response times and presents a more difficult trajectory for current missile defense assets. However, there are a wide range of broader implications to consider.
First, a majority of South Koreans have already expressed a desire for an independent nuclear capability, ostensibly so that Seoul will not be reliant on Washington’s extended deterrence pledge. Furthermore, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in a state long and uniquely leery of nuclear weapons, has openly postulated that Tokyo’s constitution does not prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. His comments come amid increasing domestic concerns over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Second, were Japan and South Korea to pursue nuclear capabilities, their acquisition timelines could likely be expedited, giving the international community little time to convince these two parties to avoid proliferation. North Korea’s actions could thus quickly lead to rising instability across not only Northeast Asia but also the broader Asia-Pacific region and the rest of the world. As a result, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and other norms to curtail nuclear weapon development would be placed in great jeopardy.
Should Pyongyang continue to escalate its missile and nuclear weapon testing, there is a distinct possibility of a nuclear demonstration. Given that the blowback from previous tests has not yet deterred Kim Jong-un, there is no indication that he intends to stop his research and development programs. Furthermore, given the international speculation regarding North Korea’s technical proficiency, Pyongyang’s ability to prove its nuclear qualifications may carry more weight than it has for other nuclear powers.
If Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs are about deterring foreign aggression, gaining prestige through displays of strength, and extorting its neighbors, Kim Jong-un may believe there are few tools better than a clear, visual demonstration of North Korea’s capabilities. It is entirely possible that Kim Jong-un may not fully appreciate the regional and international implications of such a test. Once the capability threshold has been crossed, Kim Jong-un’s willingness to launch becomes a question of intent, which is difficult to determine with regard to Pyongyang.
The first above ground test of its kind would have dire consequences, and the international community should therefore plan ahead to prepare for such a demonstration. This will also involve the reassurance to regional allies in East Asia, who could feel increasingly tempted to acquire their own capability in response.
Davis Florick is a Senior Fellow with the Human Security Centre and holds a master’s degree in East-West studies from Creighton University.