Getting Testy
Is North Korea bluffing?


I say it’s about time.

For several years the U.S. has been operating under the assumption that Pyongyang has the bomb. One usually hears that they have the capability to have produced eleven weapons, an estimate that rises every year or so. “Capability to have produced” means that we don’t actually know what is in their inventory, but based on estimates of the availability of the component parts — most importantly fissile material, which is the most difficult component to acquire — analysts figure they could have eleven weapons, if they chose to build them.

But do we know for a fact that they have even one working weapon? Do they even know? Without a test, how could they? Even if they had the components, even if they assembled them, they could not know for certain the weapons would work unless they tested at least one. It would be foolish to assume otherwise, especially with weapons as complex as atomic bombs; the expression “fine North Korean craftsmanship” has yet to catch on.

Yet in the world of deterrence, there is no difference between a country actually having a nuclear capability and simply having others believe they have that capability. Adversaries will be deterred either way. The fact that the North Koreans have never tested a nuclear weapon is a very good reason for doubting they have them. Wouldn’t it make sense from their point of view to make the deterrent more credible by demonstrating it exists? On the other hand, since we already assume they have nuclear weapons, why should they bother?

The current crisis has its roots in last summer’s Taepo Dong-2 missile test, the one in which after their new long-range missile failed miserably the North Koreans fired a fusillade of SCUDS into the ocean and then claimed everything went according to plan. It was another benchmark in aberrant behavior from Kim’s eccentric regime, but the event was alarming enough for the United Nations Security Council to pass Resolution 1695. The resolution condemned the missile launch, demanded North Korea close down its missile program, and called on all countries to ban export of missile- or WMD-related items to the country. Note that the resolution was drafted by Japan; the U.S. does not have to take the lead on this issue, there are other countries more directly and immediately affected.

Pyongyang has cited Resolution 1695 as the catalyst for the threatened nuclear test. The official statement noted that testing was necessary because of “a de facto ‘declaration of war’ against the DPRK through the recent brigandish adoption of a UNSC resolution.” A similar statement in July issued in response to 1695 also implied that a nuclear test was in the near future.

The mere fact of the resolution must have alarmed them, since these days a Security Council edict can lead quickly to regime change. A regime as paranoid as Kim’s would see it no other way. “A people without reliable war deterrent are bound to meet a tragic death and the sovereignty of their country is bound to be wantonly infringed upon,” the North Korean statement reads. “This is a bitter lesson taught by the bloodshed resulting from the law of the jungle in different parts of the world.” Any dictator should want a nuclear weapon if he can get it — it is an insurance policy. This is the same logic that is driving the Iranians towards the bomb.

North Korea is very concerned with being perceived as a legitimate nuclear power — one that developed nuclear weapons legally, and with good cause. It has sought this goal systematically, from the expulsion of the IAEA in 2002, withdrawal from the nuclear nonproliferation agreement and reprocessing plutonium in 2003, claim of possessing a nuclear capability in 2004, to the current crisis. Throughout, the regime has blamed the United States for provoking them, and claimed to desire long-term denuclearization of the region and the world.

It is unlikely that Pyongyang is bluffing. It would serve no useful purpose to threaten a test and then not carry it out. That would certainly damage North Korea’s credibility, to the extent it has any. It is also interesting to note that North Korea has downplayed the nuclear issue for the past six months, which is similar to what the Soviet Union did before its first nuclear test.

But how bad would a test be? There are some practical benefits. First, we will finally know whether or not the North Koreans can actually pull it off. If they attempt a test and it fizzles, it would be a major embarrassment. (In that case look for an immediate, massive backup conventional explosion; it could potentially fool seismic sensors, but not the radionuclide monitors.) If the test works, we will learn a lot from the signature of the explosion and from whatever sensors we will have trained on the test site. It will take some of the guesswork out of the situation. Also, the test will further energize North Korea’s neighbors to find a permanent solution to the problem of Kim’s regime. If something goes awry with the presumably underground test and a fallout plume develops, prevailing winds will take it towards Japan. One can hardly see the Japanese allowing this to take place without some form of reaction.

And what of our response? Another report of planned North Korean nuclear testing surfaced back in May 2005. Perhaps coincidentally, around the same time the Washington Post reported on a top secret (until then I suppose) directive called “Interim Global Strike Alert Order” under which U.S. Strategic Command developed a contingency plan, CONPLAN 8022-02, for use against hostile countries on the verge of developing weapons of mass destruction. The plan included a nuclear option under some circumstances. We can assume that the United States is still prepared to take vigorous action against Kim’s regime, should the international community feel it is warranted.

Come on Kim Jong Il, show us what you got, you know you want to.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.