Answering North Korea's Nuclear Test

The latest sign of the Obama administration’s failed nonproliferation policy came Tuesday, as North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, a thermonuclear weapon that relies on a two-stage fission-fusion pair of reactions to generate yields in the hundreds or thousands of kilotons. This would be the country’s fourth underground nuclear test since 2006, when the North Koreans detonated their first fission weapon, achieving a yield of less than 1 kiloton. Subsequent tests in 2009 and 2013 delivered yields of approximately 4 and 7 kilotons, respectively. South Korean intelligence reports estimate that Tuesday’s test generated a 6-kiloton yield, casting doubt on Pyongyang’s claims about a hydrogen bomb.


Whether or not the device was a hydrogen bomb, the detonation followed a series of developments over the past few years indicating that the North Koreans were making progress on building long-range rockets or missiles and, more recently, preparing to test a new nuclear weapon:

  • North Korea successfully launched a satellite into orbit in 2012, demonstrating its capacity for constructing long-range rockets, and conducted a series of missile tests in 2014 and 2015 both from bases on land and from submarines at sea.
  • In May last year, Pyongyang claimed that it had the ability to miniaturize nuclear weapons to deploy them on missiles, and later in the year U.S. Northern Command Commander Admiral William Gortney endorsed this claim, stating that he believed North Korea was capable of deploying nuclear weapons on missiles that could reach the United States.
  • Over the summer the regime expanded its uranium mining activity, and in September 2015 Pyongyang announced that it had restarted operations at Yongbyon, its primary known nuclear fuel production facility. Some observers detected the possible construction of a new “hot cell” at Yongbyon for separating out tritium isotopes necessary for thermonuclear weapons, or for a one-stage fission weapon, boosted with tritium to achieve a bigger yield. Such a weapon would be intermediate between the kinds of bombs that North Korea has previously tested and an actual hydrogen bomb.
  • In October last year, reports based on satellite imagery showed that the regime was completing construction of a new tunnel near its nuclear test facility, and Pyongyang announced in December the conclusion of a 3-year program to upgrade its space launch facilities with propellant and oxidizer tanks to facilitate deployments.
  • Finally, just a few weeks ago Kim Jong-un publicly boasted that the country was developing a hydrogen bomb.

Policy Recommendations

In spite of these developments, the Obama administration has continued to adhere to a policy of “Strategic Patience” vis-à-vis North Korea. In practice, this policy of strategic neglect did nothing to deter Pyongyang from increasingly provocative displays, not only in the nuclear realm but also with respect to cyber attacks and conventional aggression against South Korea. The latest test is a clear violation of numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions and a refutation of repeated statements by the White House about the “unacceptability” of North Korean nuclear weapons.

This setback for American nonproliferation goals is part of a broader pattern. North Korea has a record of proliferation to Syria and Iran, and the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with the latter has raised questions about the willingness of the United States to confront known proliferators. It has also raised doubts about the credibility of American promises to protect Asian allies from hostile nuclear weapons programs. It is hardly surprising that the Kim Jong-un regime should have been emboldened by the evident weakness of administration policy.

What is needed is a new approach that proceeds from an understanding that the root cause of the North Korea problem is the brutal, authoritarian character of the domestic political regime. Our policy should begin by recognizing that a change in regime would be the best outcome for the United States, its allies, and the North Korean people. In the meantime, to deter Pyongyang from further aggression and slow its WMD programs, the United States must bring the maximum possible economic, diplomatic, and military pressure to bear.

On the economic front, the United States should intensify efforts to deny the Kim Jong-un regime access to the cash with which Kim rewards subordinates and funds his weapons programs. This would require re-imposing financial sanctions, constricting Kim’s access to hard currency, and it would entail cracking down on North Korean proliferation, drug smuggling, counterfeiting, human trafficking, and other illicit sources of revenue. For example, the United States should expand preparations to interdict and search ships or aircraft suspected of carrying material related to North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. 

Diplomatically, the United States should focus international attention on the regime’s brutal, large-scale violations of human rights. Following the recommendation of the 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry, it should refer North Korea’s leaders to the International Criminal Court for potential prosecution and pressure the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to end its policy of forced repatriation of North Korean nationals. The United States must also push Beijing to cease providing Pyongyang with essential economic support and diplomatic cover, shore up its export controls, stop the use of its territory and airspace to move goods and money in and out of North Korea, and punish any Chinese parties involved in proliferation. At the same time, Beijing should be encouraged to discuss the possible implications of instability or regime collapse. Elsewhere in the region, key allies such as South Korea and Japan should be urged to work with each other, both under U.S. auspices and independent of the United States, to address military threats from Pyongyang. Finally, unless and until it ceases supporting state sponsors of terror like Iran and Syria, including through entities such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, North Korea should be re-designated a State Sponsor of Terrorism.

With regard to military deterrence, working in close conjunction with our allies, the United States should develop credible options for striking and disabling North Korean missile launch and WMD facilities, should this become necessary. The president should also make it clear that any indication of the transport of nuclear material out of North Korea would be grounds for unilateral American military action, and the White House should seek advance authorization from Congress for such a response in the event that a transfer is detected. Last but not least, to improve our defenses in the event deterrence fails, the United States should, with support from our allies in South Korea, deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system to South Korea, regardless of Chinese objections. And we must prioritize U.S. homeland missile defense and provide the resources required by the Missile Defense Agency after years of cuts and neglect from the Obama administration. This will include investing in new technologies that will qualitatively improve the system, fielding more interceptors, and deploying additional radar to increase the U.S. military’s time to detect a potential launch targeting the United States. 

North Korea’s latest provocative and dangerous act must be met, not with more empty words, but with strong, coordinated action.