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The Peninsula

North Korea’s Rationale Behind the Fifth Nuclear Test

Published September 30, 2016
Category: North Korea

By Maria Rosaria Coduti

On September 9, the day of the anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) by Kim Il Sung, Pyongyang conducted its fifth underground nuclear test at the site of Punggye-ri, in the Northeastern region of the country. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) detected a 5.3 magnitude earthquake in the area and the analysis of the seismic waveforms put the yield at 10 kilotons, making it the most powerful North Korean test to date.

All the neighboring powers – South Korea, Japan, the U.S. and China – condemned the test that, however, came not as a surprise. Indeed, regime’s senior officials have publicly talked about plans for additional testing over the past months and Kim Jong-un himself declared, in March, that the next test would occur “in a short time” and that it would be “a nuclear warhead explosion test.”

What drew most the attention of international observers was the statement of the Nuclear Weapons Institute of North Korea saying that the test “finally examined and confirmed the structure and specific features of movement of [a] nuclear warhead that has been standardized to be able to be mounted on strategic ballistic rockets.” It added that “the standardization of the nuclear warhead will enable the DPRK to produce at will and as many as it wants a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power.” Even in the absence of a technical assessment of the test results, it is clear that North Korea is advancing in the development of its nuclear weapons technologies and that it could achieve its nuclear capacities goals very soon.

Contrary to the tendency to underestimate the progress of North Korea’s nuclear program, the policy community seems to acknowledge that “this time is different”, as noted by Haggard and Pollack. The more rapid frequency of the testing – two tests in just nine months, the disclosing of details about the detonation through technical personnel – and not through political organs or state media, and the use of the word “warhead” instead of device – are signs of a renewed confidence of the regime in its nuclear program.

An increased nuclear capability in the hands of the North Korean regime is viewed as a serious threat to the international peace and security by the majority of governments, which tends to ascribe an offensive nature to the intentions of the of Pyongyang’s leadership. However, the DPRK is fully aware that it would lose a war against the U.S. and its allies and it views the possession of nuclear weapons in a defensive perspective. The belligerent tones of the country’s official propaganda and the actions of the regime fit well with its interests and, as many political scientists have affirmed, “North Korea’s behavior, far from crazy, is all too rational”.

In order to try to understand North Korea’s actions, and so the rationality behind them, it is useful to frame the politics of the country in terms of the interconnection between its domestic and foreign dimension. In this kind of framework, the nuclear program becomes essential to the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un and represents the most powerful tool he has to preserve his rule from the perceived threats.

The recent events should be put in the context of the strategy that the young leader is implementing internally – aimed at ending the Songun (military-first politics) era while promoting North Korea as a “normal state”, and its strategic purpose of driving a wedge between its main economic patron, China, and the U.S in order to deal with the international community policies of isolation and sanctioning because of its unwillingness to denuclearize.

Since he took power in 2012, Kim Jong-un presented the parallel development of the economy and the nuclear sector, a policy called Byungjin, as the pillar of his rule. The regime cannot consider the nuclear program as something to be bargained away because, together with economic development, it is a crucial tool in order to keep the leadership internally stable. Moreover, the North Korean nuclear deterrent constitutes the ultimate guarantor for “safeguarding its dignity and right to existence,” mainly from the hostile policy of the United States.

By carrying out nuclear and missiles tests, the North Korean leadership is signaling that the country has become a strong nuclear weapons state, like the other nuclear powers – China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA, and India, Israel and Pakistan. This, on the one hand, guarantees internal support for the regime and serves the political purpose of strengthen its grasp on the population. Additionally, the showing of the nuclear power of the country is also aimed at galvanizing the military elites, that have not viewed positively the reorganization of the political system of the country in favor of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

On the other hand, the North Korean leadership is trying to push the international community, in particular the U.S., toward the recognition of the new nuclear status of the country, that would assure it a stronger position in the negotiations with the external actors. Indeed, while the nuclear tests of 2006, 2009 and 2013 were used by Pyongyang to obtain humanitarian and financial aid and energy assistance, in a classical brinkmanship setting, the latest tests signals a change in the strategy of the regime. As noted by Lee Sangsoo, “North Korea is pursuing a strategy of nuclear development first, negotiations later.” Such a change has also been triggered by the U.S. policy of “strategic patience” and South Korea’s firm position on increasing pressure and sanctioning North Korea. Finally, the latest test should be analyzed within the context of increased frictions between China and the U.S., due to several issues such as the South China Sea dispute and the THAAD deployment in South Korea. Given that China represents a key actor for the implementation of sanctions against Pyongyang, North Korea is trying to to exploit cracks on international coordination over its nuclear program by conducting nuclear and missile tests.

Whether the young leader will continue to succeed in managing complex internal and external situations is yet to be seen. For now, it seems that, like his predecessors, he has been able to “manage palace, domestic and international politics with extreme precision”, as noted once by David Kang.

Maria Rosaria Coduti is a North Korea analyst for NK News and an academic tutor at the School of Political Science, University of Bologna. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Stefan Krasowski’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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