This North Korea Nuclear Test Would Be Different

Provocative action during President Barack Obama's visit could produce irreversible escalation.

President Barack Obama, left and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, right, speak during a press conference at the Blue House in Seoul on April 25, 2014.

President Barack Obama, left and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, right, speak during an April 25 press conference in Seoul, South Korea, on the growing signs North Korea is defiantly readying another nuclear test.

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Not now, North Korea. Not at this time.

New reports that the hermetic Asian kingdom may follow through on threats of a fourth nuclear test have put its immediate neighbors on high alert. North Korea’s decision to continue pursuing a uranium-based nuclear weapon would be catastrophic, even if President Barack Obama weren’t already visiting the region.

And it comes at a time when world leaders are already exceeding their bandwidth on crises all along the Russian border, spiking violence in Syria, nuclear negotiations in Iran and drawing down from Afghanistan.

For the U.S. and South Korea, a nuclear test right now during Obama's goodwill trip ​​​​​​​​would amount to an irreversible poke in the eye, says David Straub, a North Korean expert at Stanford University.

“Before, during or after his visit, it would be quite provocative. And literally, it would provoke the U.S.,” he says, adding there isn't ever any way to accurately predict the actions of a reclusive country like North Korea. 

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The average Korean  has grown used to the North's saber rattling, says Jeong Jin Park, with South Korea's Kyungnam University. 

"However, what should worry everyone is if North Korea conducts its threatened 'new form of nuclear test' using highly enriched uranium," says Park, vice director of the university's Institute for Far Eastern Studies. "The proliferation risk of such a nuclear weapon capability is far greater than the plutonium-based weapon, which North Korea has presumably demonstrated already." 

South Korean conservative activists chant slogans with placards showing portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un during a rally denouncing North Korea's missile test-launch in Seoul on March 26, 2014.
South Korean conservative activists chant slogans with placards showing a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a rally denouncing North Korea's missile test-launch in Seoul on March 26, 2014.

As a result of Kim Jong Un’s latest bravado, local leaders have issued bold retorts about another nuclear test from its belligerent northern neighbor.

"If North Korea goes ahead with another nuclear test as it has publicly warned, it will be a game changer," said South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se on Monday. South Korea has not elaborated specifically on what would be new about such a response, beyond the usual rhetoric of further isolating North Korea, improving missile defense and petitioning the United Nations for harsher sanctions against the regime.

The State Department declined to comment on whether South Korea has explained to the U.S. what this new response would be. A spokesperson said it is closely monitoring the situation and is aware of press reports of activity at the nuclear sites.

“We continue to urge North Korea to refrain from actions that threaten regional peace and security and to comply with its international obligations and commitments,” the spokesperson said, responding to requests by email on the condition of anonymity. “As required by multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, North Korea must abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner, and immediately cease all related activities.”

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Pentagon spokesman Navy Adm. John Kirby said Tuesday he was not aware of any communications with the South Korean military on a ramped-up response to North Korea's aggression. 

"Regardless, it's way past time​ for North Korea to meet its international obligations and stop the kind of behavior that does nothing but foster and foment instability on the peninsula," he said. 

News reports skipped back and forth this week on whether North Korea would follow through on the test, or perhaps was simply craving attention in its nuclear claims.

But satellite imagery from late Thursday suggests the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site – home to the previous three tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 – is indeed preparing for yet another detonation, according to information on 38 North, the blog on North Korean activity maintained by the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. There is increased movement of vehicles and materials at the entrances to the complex’s tunnels, and command and control vehicles used to manage communications appear to be parked in the Main Support Area.

Threat of an attack come at the worst possible time for North Korea’s foes. Obama's tour of the region includes stops in four allied countries, including Japan and South Korea. He is scheduled to meet with South Korean officials through Friday, and on Saturday will visit the joint U.S.-South Korean Combined Forces Command.

“Threats will get North Korea nothing other than greater isolation,” Obama said Friday morning at a joint news conference with South Korean President Park Geun-hye. “We’re united on the steps Pyongyang needs to take, including abandoning their nuclear weapons and ballistic weapons programs and living up to their international obligations.”

When asked further about North Korea’s nuclear test, Park offered grim prospects for future relations with its belligerent northern neighbor.

“If North Korea is actually going to carry out the fourth nuclear test, that is going to change fundamentally the security landscape,” she warned. It would completely dissolve the work achieved in six-party talks that began in 2003 designed to map a path to North Korean denuclearization.

North Korea used time bought with these talks to further its nuclear program, Park said.

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“We're going to lose the momentum for the South Korean efforts to improve that relationship if the North Korean test is going to take place,” she said. “I believe this is not going to be a problem only for the Northeast Asia region. This is going to be a serious threat to global peace.”

U.S. and South Korean officials, including Park and Obama on Friday, have said they would pursue substantially stronger sanctions, military responses and defensive countermeasures if North Korea proceeds with another test.

“It’s not unusual for North Koreans to attract attention to themselves in advance of this type of visit,” says Scott Snyder, director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. “What would be new is if they actually were to take a provocative action during his visit.”

North Korea has been increasingly flirting with massive retaliation since Kim the younger took control of the autocratic regime. International experts including Snyder say he is much more of a loose cannon than his predecessors. But Kim has declared his intention to test a uranium-based weapon, and to work toward one that could be mounted on a missile.

“Previously, North Koreans were predictable. Now it’s safe to say they don’t always respond precisely according to type,” Snyder says. “The thing that makes this challenging is the timing of the threat.”

“I think it’s probably safe to say at some point the North Koreans will do another test.”