A Seventh North Korean Nuclear Test? Potential Alliance Response
Korea Institute for Military Affairs
In a continuing series of tests, North Korea recently launched a Hwasong-17 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), breaking its self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile testing. With a range of perhaps 15,000km this threatens both Guam and Hawaii. Opinion is divided on whether North Korea will soon conduct a nuclear test, its seventh, breaking another self-imposed moratorium.
Reasons to believe that North Korea is not preparing another nuclear test
First, such a test seems inconsistent with the current North Korean national strategy, as declared in January 2021 by Kim Jong-un, which prioritizes economic development, seeking to expand food and energy production. According to the official propaganda, North Korea has already established itself as a nuclear-armed state by its six previous nuclear tests, and shifting resources away from broader economic development in order to advance the nuclear program risks popular discontent, in light of recent difficulties caused by weather-related harvest failures and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Second, North Korea is devoting most of its attention to the development or completion of its various intercontinental and medium range ballistic missiles, seeing this as a more important lever to influence the US, Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) than improving its nuclear warhead capability. North Korea claims that the March 24 test was a Hwasong-17 ICBM, citing Kim’s signature on a document to that effect, and also his presence at the scene during the test. Informed speculation doubts that this missile is in fact capable of intercontinental range, suggesting that it was actually a Hwasong-15 mocked up as a Hawsong-17 to impress Kim’s domestic audience.
Third, a seventh underground nuclear test could undermine the veracity of North Korea’s much vaunted nuclear-armed status. Conducting such a test without a specific reason or explanation casts doubt on previous claims made by the regime. Supposedly, the six previous nuclear tests have already demonstrated the capability to build lightweight miniaturized nuclear warheads capable of being delivered by North Korea’s missiles. So what could be the purpose for any subsequent test: were the earlier tests not as successful as North Korea claimed? There is surely potential for North Korea to be humiliated on the world stage, and the Kim regime relies upon presenting itself as a formidable international player to shore up domestic support.
Fourth, the major purpose of another North Korean nuclear test would be to persuade the US to begin direct talks with North Korea, following a North Korean agenda which is all about lifting economic sanctions. But even if Kim decides to conduct a seventh nuclear test, it is not obvious that this will attract much US attention. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the continuing war is absorbing all the energies of the US, Europe, and much of the wider world. US President Joe Biden has called Putin a war criminal and encouraged his overthrow. It will be very difficult for North Korea to grab the headlines at such a turbulent time.
All in all, it is not clear why Kim should spend scarce and expensive nuclear fuel on a seventh nuclear test.
Reasons to believe that North Korea is preparing another nuclear test
First, at the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea, in January 2021, Kim promised five core objectives in the five-year plan for defense and weapons technologies. These are: 1) development of a “super-large” nuclear warhead, 2) precision targeting of ICBMs to a range of 15,000km, 3) development of hypersonic glide vehicles, 4) development of submarine and terrestrial solid-fueled ICBMs, 5) acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. If, therefore, North Korea is able to conduct a test with such a super-large nuclear warhead, then this would demonstrate the successful achievement of one of these five core tasks.
Second, there are some indications, from commercial satellite images analysed by intelligence officers in the US and the ROK, that North Korea is indeed preparing for another nuclear test at the Punggye-ri site.
Third, in January this year, Kim Jong-un distanced himself from any promises on missile and nuclear testing made to former US president Donald Trump in Singapore in April 2018. Having already restarted long-range missile testing, Kim may be intending to restart nuclear testing, sooner or later. North Korea also has plans to launch military spy satellites into low Earth orbit, which would follow a similar trajectory to that required for delivering multiple nuclear warheads from an ICBM.
Fourth, there are also plausible technical reasons exist for Kim to conduct a nuclear test: 1) experts believe that North Korea needs more experience with the high explosive detonators required to initiate a nuclear warhead, 2) since most of their 20+ warheads are not suitable for loading onto a missile, it is unclear whether such miniaturized warheads have in fact been perfected, and 3) lacking advanced computing facilities, North Korea’s nuclear weapons need regular testing to verify their safety.
So North Korea may indeed be preparing to conduct its seventh nuclear test, reprising its recurrent role as the Northeast Asia troublemaker. The consequent security challenges will require an integrated regional response, and the need for trilateral military cooperation has never been more urgent. On March 31, 2022, in Hawaii, there was a Trilateral Chief of Defense (Tri-CHOD) meeting between the US, the ROK, and Japan, at which they discussed the possibility of the incoming ROK administration playing a more active role in deterrence against North Korea, as well as against China.
Enhancing cooperation between the US and South Korea in response to recent North Korean missile tests, and the prospect of renewed nuclear testing
First, during his campaign, President Yoon Suk-yeol promised to cooperate more closely and pragmatically with the US. This may include allowing US Forces Korea (USFK) to deploy more Terminal High Altitude Area Defense batteries; also, the ROK military may join the US-led regional missile defense system, and it may play a more active role in trilateral security cooperation with Japan.
Second, after the recent Tri-CHOD meeting, the US and ROK may be able to expedite the rewriting of the current Operational Plan (OPLAN) 5015. Previously, at the 53rd US-ROK Security Consultative Meeting in December 2021, the US and the ROK failed to sign up to new Strategic Planning Guidance, after then ROK President Moon Jae-in blocked agreement, for unspecified reasons. But on February 17 the ROK finally agreed to sign on the Permanent Military Committee between USFK and ROK JCS, so that ROK/US Combined Forces Command can now begin the process of upgrading or rewriting OPLAN 5015, which is expected to take years, though perhaps a seventh North Korean nuclear test might accelerate it.
Third, Tri-CHOD meetings, previously held on an ad hoc basis, are now expected to become a permanent mechanism to discuss Northeast Asian security. Moreover, although the March meeting apparently did not discuss trilateral military exercises, according to the ROK, it is a key part of the Biden administration's Indo-Pacific strategy to establish closer trilateral cooperation. President Yoon has promised to get tougher on North Korea, so the new YOON administration may agree to trilateral military exercises as well to as a more general strategic alignment. Indeed, a seventh North Korean nuclear test would provide domestic political cover for Yoon to join a NATO-like multilateral security mechanism, primarily based upon the US, Japan and the ROK.
Fourth, in the current geopolitical climate, the UN Security Council is very unlikely to impose additional sanctions on North Korea, since China and Russia are both veto powers. Instead, the US and allies can strengthen their monitoring of sanctions-busting ship-to-ship transfers between Chinese and North Korean vessels in the Yellow/West Sea and the waters south of the Korean Peninsula. The UK, France and Germany have already been involved in this mission, and the US may ask for more support from NATO.
Fifth, when the new Yoon administration takes over, annual combined defense exercises with USFK are expected to be resumed, after a hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and President Moon’s attempts to placate North Korea.
Sixth, President Yoon’s campaign platform included requesting the permanent deployment of US strategic assets in the ROK, such as nuclear-powered submarines, aircraft carriers, long-range bombers, stealth fighters and other military hardware. His team has already raised this issue at a meeting with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. President Yoon also promised to revive the ROK-US Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group, involving the two countries’ Foreign and Defense Ministers, which has not met since January 2018. Yoon wants to establish a bilateral coordination and comprehensive consultation mechanism between the ROK and the US, modeled on the NATO nuclear planning group, to control the use of US tactical nuclear weapons which Yoon would like deployed to South Korea.
Finally, if North Korea does resume nuclear testing, then the new Yoon administration is more than willing to help implement the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, to which President Moon cautiously agreed at a summit with Biden in February 2021. This implies closer defense and security cooperation between the ROK and Japan, and the US would like the ROK to go further, by joining, or at least cooperating closely with, AUKUS and QUAD, in effect moving towards an Asian version of NATO.
A new broom?
There are many strong indications that President Yoon's administration is planning extensive changes to President Moon's security policies. Future policies toward North Korea will be based on the principle of encouraging Kim Jong-un to accept “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization, but it would be hard to find any commentators in Seoul or Washington who believe that the Kim regime would ever agree to this, whatever the inducements.
Nevertheless, a distinct shift away from Moon's failed policy of appeasement now seems inevitable. The new Yoon administration is committed to strengthening the ROK’s security alliance with the US, and pursuing a robust policy toward North Korea is integral to this approach.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine should remind the US and the ROK of that truism of international relations: that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. The Moon administration attempted unsuccessfully to split the difference between North Korea and the US, but the new Yoon administration has drawn a clear line between friends and enemies, seeing the US as a reliable and resilient partner essential for the survival of the ROK in the face of North Korean nuclear and missile threats.
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