A confirmed nuclear test in North Korea on the eve of President Barack Obama's fifth State of the Union address is likely more about internal messaging than it is about international saber-rattling, experts say. The move also doesn't necessarily mark a threshold of no return when it comes to North Korea's ability as a nuclear power.
"They don't clearly have a missile that can threaten the U.S.," says Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network and U.S. News foreign policy blogger. "It's always bad news when a country explodes a nuclear device … [but] being able to blow up a nuclear device in a tunnel is really different then being able to fit a nuclear device on a missile and deliver it anywhere."
The actions come at a transitional phase in regional politics, as new leaders have taken over in South Korea and China in recent months—not to mention the fact that Kim Jong-Un, North Korea's leader, took over the top spot from his father, the country's longtime head, Kim Jong-Il, about one year ago.
"They did this test on the anniversary of Kim Jong-Il's birthday; so you have this very young, untested leader trying to demonstrate his legitimacy," Hurlburt says. "There's a big internal component to this that has very little to do with world affairs."
North Korea has faced increasingly tough rounds of sanctions in recent months as they have continued to ramp up their nuclear and missile testing over the opposition of the international community, including the United Nations Security Council. China, North Korea's greatest ally, also joined South Korea, Japan, the United States, and others in the latest international rebuke.
Matt Stumpf, director of the Asia Society's Washington office, said the test also marks North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear power over the well-being of their people.
"Though the full impact of today's events will depend on yet-to-be-determined nature of the nuclear technology tested, taking the North Koreans at their initial word means that they sought progress in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead for use with the missile technology it has also recently tested," he said in a blog post. "This growing capacity significantly raises the level of the perceived threat to the United States, Japan and South Korea."
He also said the move challenges China's credibility as a regional negotiator and alters the calculus for moving forward.
"China had always favored a return to talks, and the American president had prominently committed to offer an open hand to those who would reciprocate," Stumpf writes. "But, after this test, a new agreed framework — which delayed North Korea's nuclear program in return for energy — or a return to the 2005 agreement is no longer viable."
Hurlburt agrees the test complicates the China-North Korea relationship.
"The Chinese see North Korea as both an asset and a liability," Hurlburt says. "The Chinese are not going to shut down the border, they're not going to cut off trade, they are not going to stop seeing North Korea as an ally to some extent, but they've been stiff-arming Pyongyang."
The latest nuclear test is also a signal from North Korea to China, she adds.
"They are saying to China, 'Hey big brother, you can't tell us what to do,'" she says.
Obama issued a statement soon after the news of the test broke, calling the action a "highly provocative act" that "undermines regional stability."