In Flight Reading: North Korea’s Latest Nuclear Test

Did North Korea's third nuclear test tilt the balance in the region? Source: Adaptorplug's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

At 11:57am (local time) February 12, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in defiance of international sanction regimes. Initially detected as a seismic event or earthquake at around 5.0 on the Richter scale, it was shortly confirmed as an underground nuclear test within the North Korean border, estimated as a slightly larger size than the two previous tests. North Korea’s state media later implied the test was of a more miniaturized nuclear device and successful.

CSIS Korea Chair experts Victor Cha and Ellen Kim provide a detailed assessment of the key facts on the event itself here. Reportedly the White House and the U.S. State Department were notified about the test in advance by North Korea, as were Xi Jinping and the Chinese government.

While facts will likely continue to dribble out over the next few months, this test and the recent long range ballistic missile launch in December were not entirely unanticipated. In fact, CSIS research has shown that North Korea has a history of provocations around the inauguration of new South Korean leaders. The challenge for incoming President Park Geun-hye has just intensified, as several foreign policy wildcards forecast by Dr. Cha at the outset of 2013 have come into play immediately for South Korea. For its part, South Korea has announced it will deploy cruise missiles to deter North Korea and beef up its own missile defense.

In response to North Korea’s actions, the United States and the U.N. Security Council have condemned the test, but Russian and Chinese intransigence may blunt the desire for additional U.N. sanctions in the short term. Listen to CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies Christopher Johnson’s interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation discussing China’s mixed response here. Greater pressure on North Korea may be constrained until China has such time as to determine its next move internally. CSIS experts Bonnie Glaser and Brittany Billingsley have discussed China’s dilemma at length in a recent report on Reordering Chinese Priorities on the Korean Peninsula.

China’s leadership (currently in the midst of a complex transition of its own as Chris Johnson details) has plenty on its foreign policy plate already, facing tension with both Japan over control of the Senkaku-Diaoyu islets and with ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea. This could partially explain why Beijing warned Pyongyang and Kim Jong-un from conducting another provocation after North Korea began to signal another test was upcoming in the last few weeks.

President Barack Obama explicitly mentioned and condemned North Korea in his State of the Union Address in the United States saying, “The regime in North Korea must know they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only further isolate them, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.”

As the New York Times’ David Sanger discussed with Victor Cha and Bonnie Glaser at the CSIS 2013 Asia Pacific Forecast event on January 29, increased U.S. attention to this security flashpoint is likely the last thing newly minted party chief Xi Jinping and the Chinese leadership wanted. On the U.S. side the evolving national security team, including new Secretary of State John Kerry and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Joseph Yun face the first re-emerging security crisis of President Obama’s second term.